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France seeks to make amends with big Berlin Wall fete

Published on 09/11/2009

Paris — France is staging a big celebration for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to make amends for not sharing the euphoria of the momentous event in 1989, the minister for Europe said Sunday.

A dazzling light-and-sound show will take place Monday evening on the Place de la Concorde in central Paris, inspired by Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s impromptu concert at Checkpoint Charlie two days after the Wall fell.

The festivities are meant to highlight that France shares the joy of German reunification even though at the time president Francois Mitterrand was worried about a resurgent Germany in Europe.

"I wanted to organise a celebration in Paris to chase away, once and for all, the fears that surrounded this period," the minister for European affairs Pierre Lellouche told Le Parisien newspaper.

"The rendezvous that we missed in 1989 must be celebrated with dignity twenty years later," he said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will be joining Britain’s Gordon Brown and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Monday evening in a show of unity 20 years after the fall of the Wall sent shock waves around the world.

At the Paris celebration — the largest commemorative fete outside Berlin — Prime Minister Francois Fillon will be joined by Germany’s state minister for Europe Werner Hoyer and Lellouche.

A group of 27 violinists from across Europe, accompanied by choir singers, will perform from a stage purposely built on special pillars erected on the square to symbolise fragments of the Wall.

Like Rostropovich who took his Stradivarius to Checkpoint Charlie on November 11, 1989, the musicians will play Bach along with other works from Gabriel Faure and Alfred Schnittke.

Images tracing some of the dark hours of divided Europe will be projected onto the facades of surrounding buildings on Place de la Concorde during the show starting at 7 pm local time.

French foreign ministry archives released earlier this month showed the extent to which Mitterrand and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher fretted over reunification after the Wall’s collapse caught them by surprise.

Trapped in a Cold War mentality, and mindful of their countries’ suffering at the hands of Germany during World War II, the leaders of the day had difficulty envisaging a rapid sea change in European politics.

Lellouche recalled that Mitterrand never joined in the euphoria of 1989 and his reservations were on full display when he hosted European leaders at an Elysee dinner a few days later.

"At this dinner on November 18, we could have expected champagne and an outpouring of emotion," said Lellouche.

"No, it was instead suspicion and worries, fears even. Mitterrand was worried and Madame Thatcher very hostile."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel lamented this week in an interview to Le Figaro newspaper that Mitterrand "was not really at the forefront of our battle" for reunification.

Mitterrand’s decision to visit East Germany in December 1989 baffled Merkel, then a 35-year-old physicist living in East Berlin.

"When I saw the posters announcing the state visit, I was stunned. I asked myself ‘Is he really coming?’."

Merkel however went on to add that much was accomplished between Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl to build Franco-German relations in the years that followed.