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Europe: France And Germany Paper Over Their Differences

Prague, 6 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Helmut Kohl will begin the 71st biannual Franco-German summit meeting later this afternoon in the Provencal city of Avignon in what could hardly be less auspicious circumstances.

The two countries are at odds over a number of important issues affecting both bilateral relations and their traditional role within the European Union as the dual motor of continental integration. The differences range from French delays in implementing earlier agreements for joint ventures in producing armaments, which has led the Germans to cancel a number of planned common enterprises, through a host of problems touching on vital EU questions.

These include Franco-German differences over a recent initiative by EU Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan to create what he called a "New Trans-Atlantic Marketplace" that would liberalize the Union's trade with North America. Paris loudly rejected the idea, while Bonn spoke up at least in principle for Brittan's plan. France has also aligned itself with Italy and Belgium in demanding EU internal structural reforms, particularly in permitting more majority-vote rather than consensual decisions, before the Union begins its planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe. Germany is, at best, lukewarm on the proposal.

What's perhaps equally important, personal relations between Chirac and Kohl, never very warm, have now cooled almost to the freezing point. Apart from their Gargantuan appetites, the two men have little in common. Kohl's methodicalness has made him seem to many like an ice-breaker moving slowly but inexorably toward its goals. In 16 years in office, he has built an international reputation for steadfastness. Chirac's chronic impulsiveness, on the other hand, has led him to be dubbed the "bulldozer" -- a nickname that caught on nationally -- by one biographer ("Le Figaro" editor Franz-Olivier Giesbert), who wrote that he "charges through politics without baggage or memory." It has also led him, in his three years in office, to a series of much-criticized decisions: from restarting French nuclear testing just before the signing of the United Nations' non-proliferation treaty to calling a snap general election a year ago to reinforce his conservative parliamentary majority. In response to the second idea, French voters slapped him in the face by installing a Socialist-led Left government.

Both the political and temperamental differences reached a new low over the past weekend at the EU's Brussels summit that in effect locked its new single currency, the euro, into the launch date of January 1. In some 11 hours of bulldozing, Chirac forced Kohl to accept a compromise that will likely divide the first eight-year presidency of the new European Central Bank (ECB) -- due to oversee the euro -- between Wim Duisenberg of the Netherlands, backed by most EU members, and Bank of France head Jean-Claude Trichet, Chirac's candidate. In Germany, where there is still much doubt about the euro replacing the mark and the ECB's apolitical nature is widely considered a necessity, the compromise was seen as a successful French politicization of the bank.

Back in Bonn, Kohl called the Brussels bargaining some of the hardest he ever experienced in the EU. But Chirac, back in Paris, added insult to injury by hailing the result as a national "victory" in a Sunday television interview. On Monday, the German mass-circulation daily "Bild" drew the obvious conclusion: "Chirac and Kohl do not get along. That complicates relations between the two countries."

Other press comment, in France as well as Germany, savaged Chirac for what some analysts called the "death-blow" he probably had administered to Kohl's ambition to win an unprecedented fifth term in office in September general elections. The ruling conservative coalition's campaign posters had just been put up when Kohl traveled to Brussels. They showed the Chancellor striking a statesman-like pose under the slogan, "For a strong euro --Helmut Kohl." Commentators agreed, however, that the Brussels compromise had deprived the Chancellor of a much-needed foreign-policy triumph, while strengthening skepticism about the euro across the German political spectrum.

The Left-of-Center French daily "Liberation," echoing some German press comment, wrote ironically (May 4) that "Chirac is once again helping to elect a socialist government --only this time, it will be in Germany." But in an analysis yesterday in the conservative "Figaro," the usually well-informed Pierre Bocev took that idea seriously. Bocev wrote that in Chirac's Elysee Palace offices, "five months before the German elections, the Christian Democratic Chancellor is seen as definitely on the way out."

Can the 24-hour Avignon summit restore a measure of amity to the deeply troubled Franco-German personal as well political relations? In the past three days, by papering over the differences and emphasizing the positive, officials in both countries have sought to suggest that it can. Chirac's spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said yesterday that "the (Franco-German) motor is not broken (but) solid." The day before, Kohl himself said that the Brussels spat had not seriously damaged German-French friendship. "With friends," the Chancellor said, "you can talk about everything, even if you disagree."

But German Christian Democrat Bundestag member Karl Lamers, who is known to be close to Kohl, was probably closer to the truth in remarks he made Monday. Lamers suggested the Kohl-Chirac meeting was likely to be frosty. The two leaders, he said, "are going to speak their minds to each other behind closed doors. Perhaps," Lamers added, "that is just as well."