France's last good European?

To unite Europe around Franco-German reconciliation was Mitterrand's great dream and political achievement, says Richard Mayne
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The Independent Online
On a cold dark November night in 1988, Francois Mitterrand addressed a huge crowd in front of the Pantheon in Paris. It was a ceremony to transfer to that national Valhalla the mortal remains of Jean Monnet, the founder of the European Union. For some statesmen it might have been a routine act of homage with electoral overtones. For Mitterrand, it was a genuine tribute - a confirmation that both men saw Europe as vital to France's future.

"I have never forgotten", Mitterrand wrote in his diary a few years earlier, "the enthusiasm of the early days: the European Congress at The Hague in 1947, the Home Congress in 1948, the passion that enflamed us all. To reconcile France and Germany in a greater community: we reacted rapidly then, two years after the death of Hitler and the collapse of his Reich."

Franco-German reconciliation was Mitterrand's prime European objective, as much as it was Monnet's. He always remembered how his grandparents wept at any mention of France's defeat by Prussia at Sedan in 1870. Born in one Franco-German war and marked, equivocally, by another, he had every reason to back the uniting of Europe; and if he voted against the European Defence Community, that was only because he still feared that it might revive German military strength.

He was never, in fact, as single-minded as Monnet. His enemies called him Florentine, thinking of long knives and Renaissance alleys, and his record on Europe included scepticism and disillusion as well as hope. Far more than Monnet, he saw the United States as both a safeguard and a potential danger. American-based multinationals, he once remarked, were so dominant that "the real capital of Europe is Washington".

Long before talk of a single currency became general, he confided to his diary: "The Americans have dominated by their currency the Europe they liberated by their weapons. The Europeans will free themselves if they can create a currency of their own."

The Elysee chronicles of Mitterrand's talkative aide Jacques Attali, published verbatim but not perhaps to be taken as such, are full of presidential side-swipes at American presumption - including, ludicrously, envy of the terrestrial globe that Reagan kept in his office. When Mitterrand returned to Paris after a visit to Washington, he told Attali to get him one like it. To their joint discomfiture, no French maker could supply one off the shelf. So Mitterrand ordered 20 to be specially made, one for himself and the rest to be donated to visiting heads of state.

But if there was a touch of Gaullism in Mitterrand's attitude, he never expressed it in Gaullist, nationalist terms. He knew, as Monnet did, that only a united Europe could aspire to anything like equality with America; and at times of disillusion with progress in Europe his uneasiness again centred on Germany. "Germany grows as Europe shrinks," he wrote in 1973.

It was a worry that surfaced again at the prospect of Germany's unification. But meanwhile, in October 1982, he had met the newly elected Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Almost the first words that Kohl uttered, according to the Pepys-like Attali, were both ominous and assuring. "Make no mistake," said Mitterrand's stately visitor, "I am the last pro-European German chancellor." His uncle and his elder brother, he added, had been killed in the two world wars. Like Germans and many Frenchmen, he had visceral reasons for seeking Franco-German entente.

Quite clearly, Kohl and Mitterrand saw eye to eye on Europe, despite their coming from opposite ends of the political-party spectrum. Together, they solved the nagging problem of Margaret Thatcher's objection to Britain's budgetary contribution; together, they steered through the Single European Act; together, they helped to confect the bristling spatchcock of the Maastricht treaty. Together, had Mitterrand survived both politically and physically, they would no doubt have inaugurated Europe's single currency, the ill-named and possibly ill-starred Euro.

If Mitterrand had foreseen, back in 1982, his ultimate replacement by Jacques Chirac, should he have warned Chancellor Kohl that he was meeting "the last European French president"? From Chirac's public statements, it remains hard to tell. Running for office, he was all things to all men - so much so that one Paris journalist congratulated France on having elected at least two presidents in one.

Chirac has made semi-Gaullist noises and gestures, including his refusal to attend in person the late-March opening in Turin of the Inter-Governmental Conference to review the Maastricht treaty, popularly known as "Maastricht 2". Yet he has backed the austerity plans of his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, designed partly to enable France to meet the Maastricht criteria for monetary union and the single currency. And although Jacques Delors has famously warned that the Franco-German relationship, so central to Europe, needs careful nurturing, there are few signs as yet that it risks falling into disrepair.

The prominence given to Delors' remark by the British media, in fact, may be a further example of the obsessive-seeming schadenfreude with which commentators on this side of the Channel greet any sign of rifts in Europe. From the far side of the Eurotunnel that links but still fails to unite the British and their neighbours, Franco-German relations look more solid than some would like to think. Jean Monnet repeatedly invoked "necessity" as a force in human affairs; and there is, whatever the obstacles, a sense of inevitability about the drawing-together of Germany and France.

Mitterrand was sometimes discouraged and often mistrusted: when he stood against De Gaulle in the first round of the 1965 French presidential election, Monnet voted for the centrist Jean Lecanuet. But in the two-candidate run-off, rather than endorse De Gaulle, Monnet voted for Mitterrand. Why? Because, as Monnet explained in his memoirs, Mitterrand had come out "in favour of 'a Europe built by the process already begun in the economic and technical fields'."

In other words, he accepted that the process launched in the Fifties not only had gathered overwhelming momentum but was also the right course of action for any foreseeable future.

With so many challenges facing Europe - Yugoslavia, unemployment, eastward enlargement, monetary union, agricultural reform - France and Germany have little alternative but to continue providing the motor for progress. Chancellor Kohl and President Chirac both agree that a European Germany is the only option for those who fear a German Europe. And if they, like the British, are divided and uncertain about the form that their and the EU's relations will or should take, they might well remember the words of a wise Frenchman - not Mitterrand, but a friend of Monnet's: "We don't know where we're going: all we know is that we're going there together."

The writer is former personal assistant to Jean Monnet.