German Election: Schroder's victory tilts Europe left

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GOVERNMENTS IN Paris and Bonn come and go but the Franco-German axis rolls on. Maybe.

The defeat of the francophile Helmut Kohl inevitably caused some anxiety yesterday in France, Germany's closest ally. French commentators picked up especially on Gerhard Schroder's declared intention to reforge the Paris-Bonn axis as a Bonn-Paris-London three-wheeler. Such statements are made almost every time a government changes in any of the three capitals. Similar remarks were made, successively, by John Major, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair.

Ultimately, the sheer bulk of the historical importance of the Franco- German partnership has tended to outweigh attempts, however sincere, to re-invent relations with London.

Until now. As a number of French commentators and politicians pointed out yesterday, the defeat of Helmut Kohl marks a historical, generational, and even geographical, watershed. Mr Schroder will be the first German Chancellor to have no memory of the Second World War. His government will move shortly to Berlin, completing a re-orientation of German pre-occupations away from the Rhine and towards Central and Eastern Europe.

The centre-left newspaper Liberation said France would now face a Germany stripped of all complexes in expressing and defending its own interests.

In other words France could no longer count on war guilt, and a determination to end a century of Franco-German conflict, as the bedrock of the relationship between the two countries. It would have to be based on shared interests.

The fact Mr Schroder is a social democrat, like Lionel Jospin - completing a left-of-centre bloc of governments in the four largest European Union countries for the first time - drew more positive comment. Although Mr Schroder had tended to welcome comparisons with Tony Blair, rather then Mr Jospin, French socialists are confident that, in government, he is likely to follow a more Jospinesque course.

Germany, like France, avoided both the excesses, and the benefits, of the market revolution of the 1980s. The German economy, like the French economy, is moving faintly upwards at last. French commentators expect Mr Schroder, like Mr Jospin, to pick a pragmatic economic course.

In managing the euro, the shared interests of the two countries should be easy enough to identify. French officials expect a Schroder-led government to be more sympathetic to French pressure for joint government control of overall economic policy in the European monetary union zone.

Europe does provide the opportunity, however, for one big potential Franco-German quarrel. Germany will want to push ahead rapidly with enlargement to the east; France under Mr Jospin (for all its protestations to the contrary) does not. Berlin under Mr Schroder is likely to be even tougher than Bonn under Mr Kohl in insisting that enlargement must not be funded principally by German tax-payers.

In the short-term, however, Franco-German co-operation is likely to assert itself strongly. In Paris, it is confidently expected that Mr Schroder's first foreign trip will be to France, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.