France, Germany mark 'friendship' half-century

18th January 2013, Comments 0 comments

When France's national handball team goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer joined his new club in Germany, he was touched by the welcome from the fans.

"To put me at ease people came out with the two or three words of French they knew," the 36-year-old twice Olympic and world champion, who plays for German champions Kiel, recalled in an interview with AFP.

He has now lived and played in Germany -- the country where the rules of modern handball were drawn up -- for seven years and relishes its "quite exceptional" sports culture, even when France and Germany clash on the pitch or field.

Omeyer arguably embodies the dream envisaged by former French president Charles de Gaulle and ex-West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer when they inked the Elysee Treaty on January 22, 1963, opening a new chapter in relations between the former foes.

Eighteen years after the end of World War II, the two leaders formalised the Franco-German cooperation that has since been at the heart of a closer Europe and the building block for 50 years of reconciliation.

Seeking to recapture the spirit of the accord, Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will embark on a packed day of events on Tuesday to mark its half-century milestone in the German capital.

Alongside the leaders, their respective governments are due to meet, while lawmakers from the French National Assembly will also travel to Berlin to join their Bundestag counterparts for a two-hour debate.

On the eve of the anniversary, Merkel and Hollande will have dinner and meet youngsters.

-- "Recover and quickly" --

But the symbolic fanfare of historic Franco-German friendship comes at a time of strained relations after Europe's gruelling debt crisis laid bare deep differences which saw Paris and Berlin repeatedly lock horns.

Even if Europe's two main architects have managed to pull off compromises, such as agreeing on a single banking supervisor, Germany, which has fared far better in the three-year-long crisis than many of its partners, has not masked its concern over the health of the French economy.

Lars Feld, one of Germany's so-called "Five Wise Men" of independent economic advisors, told AFP he did not fear France finding itself in the same boat as Italy last year with high borrowing costs.

But "the problem is that in 2012 the French economy stagnated for the second consecutive year and the situation doesn't look good this year", he added, mainly blaming a lack of French competitiveness.

While headlines in Germany such as "France, the new Greece?" have fuelled fears, a report that Berlin had asked the "Five Wise Men" to draw up economic reform proposals for France was officially denied.

Political scientist Ulrike Guerot said that Merkel, who so far has not enjoyed the same rapport with Hollande that she developed with his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, may not be openly criticising France but she is telling it to "recover and quickly".

"France must regain its stability" in order to find a balance with Germany for the good of Europe, Guerot, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.

On military matters too, France and Germany have limited cooperation as the current conflict in Mali and Germany's non-intervention in Libya in 2011 showed, and have traditionally different approaches shaped by their respective histories.

While allies have criticised Germany for failing to match its economic might with military commitments in the world's trouble spots, France is less hesitant to intervene in the wake of its colonial past and aided by quicker decision-making.

EU Greens lawmaker Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who is of Franco-German parentage, said in an interview with AFP it was high time for an updated Elysee Treaty for the 21st century.

This should include "a defence and security treaty which would aggregate French and German policies so that they can be expressed together", he said, adding it would call for parliamentary structures enabling joint interventions as well as common embassies.

Meanwhile, Arte, the Franco-German television channel created in 1990, is set to broadcast Tuesday a special edition of its weekly "Karambolage", which has offered a humorous insight into the two cultures for nearly a decade.

An Ifop poll published this week showed that just three percent of French people cited "culture and common values" as being behind Germany and France's special ties but that the euro crisis had improved Germany's image for 30 percent of French.

Gerhard Weber, who opened the German-style "Stube" snack bar in central Paris in November, says he wants to help break down old cliches as a "culinary ambassador" and sees much interest in Germany among the younger French generation.

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© 2013 AFP

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