Sarkozy's gaffe gives Alsace back to the Germans

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has startled, and amused, an audience of Alsatian farmers by referring to their region as "Germany".

Alsace has changed hands several times over the centuries. Tens of thousands of Alsatians still speak a dialect of German. The village where Mr Sarkozy was speaking – Truchtersheim – may not sound typiquement français. All the same, Alsace, on the western bank of the Rhine, has been French for most of the last 350 years and part of France since 1945.

The President immediately recognised his blooper. Pointing at his head, he said: "Now you see why I am putting a lot of money into programmes on dependency."

As one uncharitable blogger pointed out yesterday, this was probably another verbal gaffe. What Mr Sarkozy meant to say was not "dépendance" but "démence", or "dementia".

Mr Sarkozy had travelled to Truchtersheim to give his New Year address to the French farming community, an important constituency for the centre-right president in next year's presidential election.

While speaking of the need to ensure fair farming trade, he said that he was ready to accept "distortions of competition" with developing countries like China and India but not with Germany. He then went on: "I don't say that just because I am in Germany... er, because I am in Alsace."

In French, the two words are similar, "Allemagne" and "Alsace". It was clear that Mr Sarkozy had made a verbal slip, not a mistake of history or geography. All the same, the President, sometimes accused of having a hazy notion of French traditions and history, had strayed on to dangerous ground. Alsace was part of the mostly Germanic Holy Roman Empire from 962 to 1648. It was then ceded to France. After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace and part of Lorraine became in 1871 part of the newly united Germany.

Its "theft" remained a source of national resentment in France and was one reason why French people embraced war with Germany in 1914.

In the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Alsace was returned to France. After Germany's defeat of France in June 1940, the region was attached to the "Reich" but returned to France after the defeat of Nazism in 1945.

The fact that thousands of Alsatians served in the German army during the war – some willingly, others much less so – has remained a sore point in other parts of France.

"You should be ashamed," one internet user told Mr Sarkozy on the French YouTube site yesterday. "We fought for this region three times. You are ignoring the millions of people who died in three wars."

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