Franco-German ties scrutinised in great debate

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The Independent Online
'BONSOIR FRANCOIS,' said the German. 'Bonsoir Helmut,' said the Frenchman. But this was not the beginning of a language lesson: it was part of a remarkable exercise in trans-European politics that transcended diplomacy for a few minutes.

The amphitheatre at the Sorbonne in Paris has heard many hours of learned lecture. But last night it was the site of a different kind of debate: a televised presentation of the case for and against the Maastricht treaty, which had turned into a video-trial in which Francois Mitterrand, the French President, was the defendant. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, was a key witness.

It is as much the Franco-German relationship that is being investigated as anything else. It has been manipulated by both sides in the Maastricht debate in France; the 'yes' camp argues that the treaty will bind Germany into Europe; the 'no' campaign has sought to exploit it to block a further move to unity.

Though it was not the most intellectually demanding two-and- a-half hours in the Sorbonne's history, it may have been the most eagerly awaited. Every diplomat, every journalist in town will have had their television switched on; and British ministers were waiting for their videotaped copies and faxed transcripts.

Though in theory it was the issues that were on show, in practice, it was the personalities. Mr Kohl made his apearance to defend his friend the President. In fact the two are far from seeing eye to eye on Europe. But Mr Mitterrand made his apearance before the Bundestag in 1983 to defend the deployment of cruise missiles, at a time when it seemed it might not succeed. Last night Helmut returned the favour.

Mr Mitterrand was resolute, theatrical, stubborn; Mr Kohl had a translator. It cannot have helped. Francois said France and Germany were 'not hereditary enemies.' Helmut emphasised that 'we stay French, German, we keep our identity, our history, our culture.' He added that 'One cannot speak of the Germans; there are lots of Germans with very different attitudes.

Faced with the idea that Europe would be a German hegemony, Mr Kohl was brief. 'Nein.' ('Non' echoed the translator). The Chancellor expanded: 'I really don't understand this danger from a French point of view. France has a great and proud history. . . Why should France suddenly have an inferiority complex?'

The reason why Mr Kohl appeared last night is that this is not a worry for France alone. The German Chancellor is also witnessing a retreat of confidence in the Maastricht treaty at home. Alarmed by the prospect of a 'no' vote in France, and the frequent anti-German tones of the debate, Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, said yesterday that 'the time of national conflicts and emnities in Europe is past.' Holding up the Franco-German relationship as proof of succesful reconcilitiation, he said that 'our two countries will continue to be the motor of European union. But for its pulling power, this motor depends on the pace of integration set out in Maastricht being kept up.'

In common with many of its partners, the German government is battling with a strongly rising tide of Euro-scepticism. But this shift in public opinion has been so sudden and dramatic in Germany, where previously an almost unquestioning acceptance of all things European was taken for granted, that it has left the government scrambling for a response. Helmut Kohl's administration fears that, should the French vote 'no', the German consensus, already weakened, could crack.

(Photograph omitted)