Kohl mourns closest European ally

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A sombre Helmut Kohl donned a black tie for the hastily arranged television appearance shortly after the news was flashed from Paris. "I mourn a good friend," the Chancellor said in a trembling voice.

No one could doubt the sentiments were genuine. Despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Francois Mitterrand and Mr Kohl developed an intense personal relationship over the 13 years they tried to hold the reins of Europe in tandem.

Crucially, Mitterrand came to Chancellor Kohl's aid in 1983, backing his plan for new Nato missiles in West Germany despite protests from Bonn's Social Democrats. He stood hand-in-hand with him the next year at the memorial to the First World War battle of Verdun. Mr Kohl did not forget: during the campaign to ratify the Maastricht treaty he made an appearance on French television to back his friend the President.

The two bons viveurs seemed to revel in each other's company, staging Franco-German summits at intervals that were almost indecently frequent.

It was at these meetings that the Franco-German axis truly came into being, propelling the continent towards closer integration. The two men largely created the climate for the Maastricht treaty, and by establishing the Franco-German corps in 1990, raised defence co-operation to a new level.

They were convinced that only by locking their countries into a united Europe could they banish the prospect of another war between the two nations. Shaped by memories of the last war, Mitterrand and Mr Kohl had to draw deeply on their friendship when tackling military matters. Even the touchy subject of the French nuclear umbrella, which Mitterrand offered to extend to Germany in 1993, was not allowed to disrupt the Franco-German axis. Other issues were swept under the carpet.

Germans, and their government, pretended not to notice that their nation's greatest moment this century was nearly spoilt by French objections. In 1990, when East and West Germany needed the approval of France, Britain, the US and Moscow for unification, Mitterrand - and Margaret Thatcher - got cold feet, and only lobbying from Washington delivered their agreement.

The European Commission President, Jacques Santer, also paid tribute yesterday.

"In the name of the European Commission I salute the memory of Francois Mitterrand," Mr Santer said. One of Mitterrand's last public speeches was a heartfelt address in Strasbourg, restating his credo: that only through integration could Europe defeat resurgent nationalism.

With Mitterrand's departure from the political arena last summer, the Franco-German axis has seemed in danger of reverting to a myth. In Jacques Chirac, the German Chancellor now has an ideological soul-mate in power in Paris, but one with whom he has so far failed to establish any real rapport. Without Mitterrand, Mr Kohl has been left as the lone giant on the European stage, a role for which both he and his country are ill equipped.