John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

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The Independent Online

I joined the Munich to Paris express train at Ulm in western Bavaria. I had the - for me - delightful prospect of a seven-and-a-half hour train journey across Europe.

There was even a restaurant car: a throwback to the lost civilisation of Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Wagons Lits and the Orient Express.

The ticket inspector was a jolly and jokey man, confounding the stereotype of German officialdom. He looked at my ticket and beamed.

He seemed astonished to discover that a passenger on the direct Paris express should be travelling to Paris. He went into a Benny Hill- routine of naughty, French-sounding noises: "Ah Pareee, ooh, ooh, ooh, lah, lah, lah, hah, hah, hah."

The train was full until Karlsruhe. When it crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg it was empty. It then filled up again and, after Nancy, there was not an empty seat.

In other words, the direct Munich-Paris express was not one train but two: a German train to the Rhine valley; a French train from Strasbourg to Paris.

The train seemed to be a symbol of Franco-German relations, or lack of relations. Sixty-one years after the Second World War, after half a century of official friendship, the continental giants are living back-to-back lives.

Today, there is a bank holiday in France to commemorate the "French" victory over Germany in May 1945. None of the other leading allies in the war still celebrates this date.

The official alliance between Paris and Berlin is at perhaps its lowest ebb in half a century. Chancellor Angela Merkel sees no point in cultivating a soon-to-vanish President Jacques Chirac. Privately, she says that she sees no point in the old Franco-German axis now that the fulcrum of the European Union has shifted to the east.

And yet the determined, wilful post-1945 Franco-German friendship - a friendship imposed from the top, a twinning of elites - is far from dead. The two countries have just introduced a common history book for the equivalent of sixth-form students, rewritten by a committee of French and German historians.

This book - the first attempt anywhere in the world to write history across borders - covers the period post-1945. The historians had few problems squaring national views of the Cold War and the creation of the European Union.

The next volume covers the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars, 1914-18 and 1939-45. The historians' efforts to harmonise Franco-German prejudices and memories of a century and a half of mutual destruction are eagerly awaited.

This week, an influential pressure group, Le Monde Bilingue, run by an octogenarian French resistance hero, Jean-Marie Bressand, will issue a manifesto urging the people of France and Germany to make renewed and intensive efforts to learn one another's language.

M. Bressand, who narrowly escaped execution by the Germans in 1943, is depressed by the collapse of interest in German in French schools and of French in German schools. He blames an "unhealthy and undesirable" worldwide obsession with learning English (shades of President Chirac's linguistic protest at the Brussels summit in March).

"Our young people have become fixated with the US and Britain. They are not interested in Germany," M. Bressand told me. "The English language, unfortunately, is now obliterating all interest in German, which should be the European language par excellence." M. Bressand is a born resistance fighter. This time he is fighting a lost cause.

Even the French haute bourgeoisie has become obsessed by the need to make their offspring fluent speakers of English if they are to remain the elite of the next generation.

German remains a fetish in academically pushy schools: a badge of distinction, fostered by a social and political elite. In French state schools in poorer or middle-class areas, German teaching hardly exists. On the last leg of my train journey, I treated myself to a meal in the restaurant car. Unfortunately, it was a German-run car. The food was miserable: microwaved motorway meals, which would have appalled Agatha Christie and gummed up Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells".

As the train approached Paris, the German waiters offered a free meal to the French ticket inspector. He ate with a sorrowful expression.

The head of the restaurant car - a German woman in her forties, large enough to sing in a Wagner opera - sat down to chat with him. This was her first visit to Paris, she explained. Normally she was stuck on the Hamburg run. Unfortunately, she had to leave again early the next day.

"Could you not organise a strike?" she asked the ticket inspector. "You, the French railways, you are always on strike. Could you not have a little strike tomorrow so that I could see Paris? Maybe a little, two-day strike?" The ticket inspector said, unsmiling, that he would see what he could do.

They were, of course, speaking in English.