John Lichfield reports from Paris and Imre Karacs from Bonn
AVIGNON, famously, has a bridge which reaches only half-way across the river. It may provide a suitable metaphor for the state of Franco- German relations when leaders of the two countries meet in the beautiful town on the Rhone delta today.
The timing of the summit, four days after the unpleasant French-German quarrel around the cradle of the newly born euro, is either fortunate or unfortunate. The great likelihood is that President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Helmut Kohl will seize the opportunity to give a public display of friendship and understanding (falling just short of dancing tous en rond on the bridge itself). It is in the interests of both men and both countries to do so: there is, in any case, nothing pressing left for them to quarrel about. The question remains: just how much damage was done to the Franco-German alliance - the foundation-stone of the European Union - by the weekend squabble?
Some French commentators have slated Mr Chirac for behaving in such a British way and holding the rest of the EU to ransom over a point of detail. Most have brushed off the affair as the usual unseemly haggling and shrieking which accompanies any great decision in the EU. The fact that the incident has been treated relatively lightly in France, and with great fury and indignation in Germany, is itself part of the story: the two countries may be inescapable of allies but they seem no longer to understand one another very well.
It was important for Mr Chirac to impose the French banker, Jean-Claude Trichet, as eventual head of the European central bank, for personal-political reasons, more than national-political reasons. Mr Trichet is, in truth, disliked by French politicians, including Mr Chirac, because he is seen as too German, too much of a pin-striped banker; too much of a strong- currency man.
It was inevitable that German, and British, commentators would see this as a French attempt to make the bank more political and more biddable. Under Mr Trichet, this is unlikely. It is significant that the markets, despite doomsday predictions from British Euro-sceptics, have taken a relaxed view of the weekend's brawl. The markets seem to be saying it does not make a blind bit of difference whether Mr Trichet or Dutch banker Wim Duisenberg is head of the European central bank. Why did the French President make such a fuss?
Mostly personal pride and stubbornness. Mr Chirac's point was mostly to win a rare, personal point (as a lame-duck right-wing President, having to live with a left-of-centre government); and partly to assert the ultimate right of politicians, and of France, to influence such appointments.
But was that worth such grief? In the French view, some of the German emotion has been cranked up for the voters. But why, then, did the divided French give such pain to Chancellor Kohl, France's greatest ally and friend, in the run-up to the most difficult election of his career? The truth is that, emotionally, the French-German relationship is not as solid as it was. A new generation of politicians in both countries - even Mr Chirac, who was 13 in 1945 - are not so preoccupied by the war. There is no personal relationship between Paris and Bonn to match the genuine warmth and understanding of Mitterrand-Kohl in the 1980s or Giscard-Schmidt in the 1970s.
The Franco-German partnership remains an immovable feature of the domestic, political landscape in both countries. The fundamentals have not changed. Both countries are inescapably committed to the EU and therefore to one another. The advent of the euro, arguably, condemns Paris and Bonn to get on more than ever before. But there is a difference between rubbing along, with periodic bursts of tension, and getting on well. How effectively Paris and Bonn work together is crucial to a series of decisions in the next few years on the running of the single currency and enlargement of the EU to the east (potentially the biggest of all sources of Franco-German tension). It will, it seems, be up to a new generation of politicians to solve this puzzle.
One lesson is that the French establishment has written off Mr Kohl. Mr Chirac calculated he had no need to please the old man any more.
Almost exactly a year after Mr Chirac shot himself in the foot by calling an early general election, the French (Socialist) European Affairs Minister, Pierre Moscovici, is reported to have commented, snidely: "Chirac put the left in power in France in 1997; he's going to put the social democrats in power in Germany in 1998."Reuse content