Rift with the French adds to Bonn's troubles

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A RIFT in the Franco-German relationship is fuelling speculation about Bonn's evolving relations with its EC partners and the success of US efforts to break Community soldiarity by cultivating relations with Germany.

Germany's latest rift with France came to a head when Bonn took exception to the implication that its finance minister was being summoned to Paris for talks, and cancelled the meeting. Bonn's hitherto unassailable position as the bedrock of the Community is being questioned as never before and the brittleness of its relations with Paris has been put down to German unhappiness at being on the receiving end of blame for everything from the war in Bosnia to recession in Europe.

The slap to France is the latest in a litany of events raising eyebrows in EC capitals as Germany slips into relative economic decline, with the mark no longer riding high among currencies. Bonn's irritation at Paris is all the more acute because of the glee with which French commentators rushed to proclaim the franc as the new key currency in Europe.

Germany is being described by commentators as a great power in decline, where cost competitiveness is being rapidly eroded and unemployment threatens to reach 9 million. Also, industry is leaving for East European countries where labour costs in some sectors are only a tenth of German levels.

Coming at a time when the Clinton administration is cultivating Germany in a way that has put Bonn's relations with its EC partners under strain, serious problems with the relationship that provides the mainspring of the EC would cause widespread concern.

The present hiccup in Franco-German relations occurred when Germany's Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, took exception to a report which implied that his French counterpart, Edmond Alphandery, was summoning him to Paris to co-ordinate European interest-rate cuts, and cancelled the meeting, saying he had a prior engagement. Given the importance which both countries attach to the grandly named Franco-German Economic and Financial Council, which takes place twice a year, the cancellation by Bonn was all the more surprising.

French officials put the snub down to a translation error which was made by the German news agency when it quoted Mr Alphandery's remarks on a French radio interview, and there were then promises all round that the meeting would go ahead later this summer.

Nevertheless, the diplomatic spat, put down to ruffled feathers more than a serious falling-out among allies, comes at a time of increasing friction between Germany and the Twelve.

Bonn has taken a series of contrary positions on issues involving its European partners over the past few weeks, the most serious being Chancellor Kohl's call for a lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia and his brandishing of a letter from President Clinton at the European summit last week calling for Germany's support to bring Britain and France around to the US point of view.

The US has been flattering Bonn for the past few months, suggesting it should be given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and then cutting a secret deal that enabled Germany to escape from sanctions the US has slapped on the EC over the telecommunications industry. That breach of Community solidarity infuriated Bonn's EC partners but never developed into a major row and was papered over as a 'misunderstanding'. Equally, Chancellor Kohl's call for the arms embargo on Bosnia to be lifted was handled adroitly by President Francois Mitterrand and never developed into an open split in the Community.