French fears of Germany threaten core Euro alliance France falls out with Germany and brings new chill to Europe

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The Independent Online
JACQUES CHIRAC and Helmut Kohl have one thing in common: a love of food. As soon as he was elected President of France in May, Mr Chirac made a date with Mr Kohl in Strasbourg and, in a gesture of solidarity, took the Chancellor out for a symbolic meal of sauerkraut. Beyond that mess of cabbage, however, the two men have since found little else to share. Four months on, the relationship between Europe's two big power brokers has degenerated into one of mutual suspicion.

Much of the confusion which has engulfed the European Union in recent days - including doubts over monetary union, voiced again in Valencia yesterday - can be traced to the gulf which has opened up between the French and German leaders.

This week in Brussels several seasoned voices spoke in apocalyptic terms of the danger of a breakdown in the Franco-German alliance. Astonishing though it may seem across the Channel, the "danger" they refer to is that should ties break down between the French and Germans, decades of concerted reconciliation could be at risk and Europe could be back on the road to war.

To Britain, such talk smacks of Continental hysteria - a kind of blackmail worked by the Europeans to win Britain round to federalism. But the British, who never suffered occupation, have often failed to understand the Franco- German partnership or the European drive towards integration.

The federalist ideals of post-war Europe sprang directly from a desire to prevent war ever breaking out again. France, along with Germany's other smaller neighbours, recognised the only way to live in long-term peace alongside Germany was to strap the giant down inside an integrated Europe.

Germany's post-war leaders have acknowledged this too - and nobody more clearly than Mr Kohl. Britons tend to believe that Germany wants a federal Europe in order to dominate it, and they nod knowingly as Mr Kohl's ever more gargantuan figure bounces across the European stage.

Meanwhile, however, Mr Kohl is pleading with his European partners to help curb Germany's potential lust for power and "national egoism", by abandoning their own competitive obsessions with the nation-state, and building a federal Europe.

"We are frightened of ourselves - of our size and power. We must not be isolated. We must be part of Europe," said one of Mr Kohl's most trusted officials recently. "The structures we are building in the EU may not be perfect. But they are better than the devastation of 1945. Without the EU I am convinced there is real danger of another war."

All France's post-war leaders have understood that integration is the only way. The Franco-German partnership has often faltered - particularly under General de Gaulle. But it has perhaps never been as weak as it is today. The question is: why?

Much of the blame is levelled at Jacques Chirac himself. A neo-Gaullist, Mr Chirac hesitates to pool more sovereignty. Francois Mitterrand, the former president, was genuinely scared of German power, and once spoke to Margaret Thatcher of the danger of "Germany on the march".

"She understood. Her eyes glinted at this," said one senior British diplomat this week. But since his election, domestic problems have been paramount for the younger Mr Chirac, who has failed to develop a vision of Europe; confusing his partners by flirting with John Major; pushing ahead selfishly with nuclear tests; and reneging on commitments to a border-free Europe.

At the same time, the dynamic of the Franco-German relationship had already been slowly changing. The mutual respect had always depended on tacit understanding that Germany would be politically self-effacing, by always punching below its weight - as Douglas Hurd might say.

Of late there is evidence of greater German assertiveness: they are more "tetu", say Commission officials. First came the German insistence that the EU should recognise Croatia, a move which many now believe fuelled the Balkan war. Germany is starting to show readiness to deploy military forces, at least in a support capacity. In Brussels there is a sense that Germans "are less frightened of themselves - more ready to speak out" say EU diplomats. Germany has recently insisted that key EU texts are always translated into German: an understandable demand but one which 10 years ago, Germany would have avoided "for fear of making waves".

French suspicions of Germany have come to a head over monetary union. Burying the "national egoism" is one thing, but burying the German mark by linking it to other crippled currencies is for many Germans quite another. Again, to calm European fears of German economic domination, Mr Kohl insists that monetary union go hand in hand with more political power-sharing.

But Theo Waigel, the German Finance Minister, gives voice to growing German concern when he demands that other currencies must toughen up before they join in EMU. His comments have fuelled new French suspicions that Germany may not ultimately be committed to monetary union, and there are even fears that France may fail to meet the economic criteria. As a result Mr Chirac has been loath to make the concessions called for by Mr Kohl on political union, and the progress towards EU reform has run into the ground.

"Chirac is suddenly suspicious of the Germans. Germany can sense this and is sensitive. It is dangerous to stir German sensitivities," said one French source last week.

Most commentators believe that Mr Chirac has no choice but to renew the Franco-German alliance. The French President knows that Mr Kohl may be the last German chancellor with a truly integrationist view of Europe. As one diplomat put it "The next German leader could see Europe very differently."