Chirac to calm German defence fears

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President Jacques Chirac was expected to pay a courtesy call on Germany's Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, last night, in an apparent effort to soothe German nerves about impending French defence cuts.

On Monday, the French cabinet is expected to finalise its five-year military-procurement programme, which Bonn fears may damage co-operation between the two countries.

Mr Kohl is concerned in particular about three joint projects: a helicopter, a military transport craft and the Franco-German spy satellite, Helios.

Faced with soaring budget deficits that threaten to scupper European Monetary Union in 1999, the two governments have recently adopted stringent cuts in public expenditure.

The effects of these austerity measures are already becoming visible in France, as the vast conscription-based armed forces are slimmed down in the biggest upheaval of the defence sector since the war.

In Germany, the Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, must identify cuts amounting to several billion German marks by next month. Mr Ruhe is tempted to slash projects with the highest degree of symbolism but least military content.

At the top of such a list would be Helios, the satellite designed to end Europe's dependence on US technology. Chancellor Kohl was badgered into signing up for Helios at last year's summit with President Chirac in Baden-Baden, even though Germany is perfectly happy with current arrangements within the Nato framework.

Mr Kohl may not be in such cordial mood this time. After the Muroroa fiasco, when President Chirac failed to forewarn France's most important military ally about the nuclear tests, Paris pledged to improve communication links. Imagine, therefore, Chancellor Kohl's surprise when he had to learn in March about the French defence reforms from the media.

German leaders are still smarting from that debacle. In one swoop, France was doing away with its conscripted force, to replace it with a professional army which, for historic reasons, Germans of all shades mistrust.

Although the Bundeswehr is finding it increasingly difficult to fill the annual quota of recruits, hiring soldiers for money is a subject no self-respecting politician dare broach in Bonn.

Mr Chirac was doubtless going to reassure Chancellor Kohl last night that a decision of such importance would never again be taken behind Bonn's back, but the damage has already been done.

Hampered by shrinking budgets and undermined by mutual mistrust, the Franco-German axis needs more lubricant than a short dinner between President Chirac and Chancellor Kohl can provide.