Franco-German tiff blows over: Envoy's off-the-record remarks betray unease over Bonn's role in Europe

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FRANCE and Germany yesterday sought to play down tensions between the two allies after reported comments by the French ambassador on Germany's European policies had threatened to cause a publicly-exploding row.

The French ambassador in Bonn, Francois Scheer, was, in effect, summoned by the German Foreign Ministry to explain himself. After the talks, the French embassy issued a statement denying the critical comments that had been attributed to Mr Scheer in advance of the visit to Paris next week by Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister.

The German Foreign Ministry, in turn, emphasised that Mr Kinkel had talked to his French opposite number, Alain Juppe, and they had assured each other of their 'deep mutual trust' and the 'great significance' attached by both sides to the Franco-German relationship. The ministry noted: 'For both ministers one thing is clear. The unshakable Franco-German friendship will continue in the future to be the driving force of European integration.'

Both French and Germans were, perhaps, protesting too much. Decoded, the German Foreign Ministry's statement meant, in effect: 'Our relationship is going through a rocky patch, but we hope that it will survive as it has before.' Equally, the French ambassador's apparently categorical denials of his reported remarks do not need to be taken at face value; they may have more to do with a breach of journalistic etiquette when the ambassador was named.

The ambassador's reported comments made clear that France has become increasingly uneasy about Germany's role in Europe. He was quoted as wanting reassurance that Germany would not turn its face away from Western Europe when the government moves from Bonn to Berlin in a few years' time. The ambassador told a group of German journalists: 'We need that confirmation.' He insisted, too, that greater clarity about Germany's foreign policy was needed. France is known to be worried that the Bonn-Paris axis, crucial until now, will become less important as Germany begins to place new emphasis on its relationship with Eastern Europe and Moscow.

The ambassador's reported remarks emerged from an off-the-record briefing for German journalists on Tuesday; the fact that it was intended to be off the record may explain yesterday's indignant denial, which said that the remarks attributed to the ambassador had 'no basis in fact'.

The ambassador's comments, initially attributed to 'French officials in Bonn', were quoted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung under the headline 'In Paris quiet mistrust is growing towards the big German neighbour'. But other German journalists, apparently piqued that the Frankfurter Allgemeine had gone straight into print (thereby scooping its rivals), named the ambassador as the source in their stories yesterday, while bitterly complaining of the Frankfurt paper's rush to publish.

The Germans, meanwhile, reacted furiously to the criticism which comes just a few days ahead of a visit by Mr Kinkel to Paris next week. Already in recent weeks there has been tension over the failure of Chancellor Helmut Kohl to secure an invitation to the planned 50th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in June.

Mr Kohl wants the anniversary to be commemorated by emphasising the reconciliation and peace of the past 50 years. But Mr Scheer ('diplomatic circles in Bonn') pointed out that the row over the D-Day celebrations was only symptomatic of a much wider 'general mistrust'. The 'French officials' were quoted as saying: 'The problem is between Germany and Europe, between Germany and its past; 10 centuries of European history are visible in the background.'

The ambassador complained, in effect, of Germany throwing its weight around. In particular, he quoted alleged threats by Mr Kinkel to the Spaniards, saying that he would 'break their backs' if they refused to compromise on the issue of Norwegian entry to the EU. The German Foreign Ministry yesterday denied that Mr Kinkel had ever made such a remark; and the French embassy denied that the ambassador had attributed such a remark to him.

In reality, the ambassador's comments may have done more to clear the air than put the Franco-German relationship under a cloud. The German side is always eager to paint an idyllic picture of the Franco-German relationship, with both sides striding enthusiastically towards a united Europe. The ambassador's reported comments will have served as a reminder, however, that the friendship cannot simply be taken for granted.

(Photograph omitted)