LEADING ARTICLE : Time for a tete a tete

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Co-operation between France and Germany, observed Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Wednesday evening, is "almost a scientific law of politics". However, as the late philosopher Karl Popper put it, a scientific law is merely a hypothesis that has not yet been disproved. Franco-German friendship is one of Europe's obvious success stories of the last 50 years, but it cannot be taken for granted. When problems emerge, they need to be addressed directly. Political leaders in France and Germany could make no greater mistake than to pretend that the problems do not exist.

Since Jacques Chirac's presidential election victory last May, the Franco- German relationship has clearly run into difficulties. One is the resumption of French nuclear tests, which put the German government in the awkward position of having to stand by its most important European ally while signalling its sympathy with anti-nuclear German public sentiment. Another is France's decision to postpone implementation of the Schengen agreement on abolishing internal European Union borders, a measure which to many Germans appeared anti-European in spirit.

However, the most burning problem concerns Europe's political and economic future, above all the planned launch of a single currency in 1999. Unfortunately, it appears that neither Mr Kohl nor Mr Chirac is yet willing to confront the question of whether it is wise to stick to the 1999 timetable or whether, in the wider interests of Europe's economic health and political stability, it would be better to aim for a later date. After their meeting in Bonn on Wednesday, both leaders repeated the mantra that monetary union would proceed on schedule, the Maastricht criteria would not be tampered with, and France would have no trouble meeting those conditions. This is all too glib and serves only to hamper proper discussion of the issues.

The question that needs to be asked is not so much whether France can fulfil the terms for joining a single currency, but whether it makes sense for France to do so if the price is an unemployment rate of 11-12 per cent and a permanently struggling underclass. During his election campaign, Mr Chirac identified these problems as France's greatest challenges, but he has failed so far to demonstrate how they can be solved while the government simultaneously takes the knife to state spending in preparation for monetary union.

German advocates of a single currency fear that pushing the launch date beyond 1999 could bury the project forever. This is Europe's last chance, they imply; if it is not seized, everything that has been achieved since 1945 in terms of co-operation and friendship could disintegrate. But that is taking too apocalyptic a view. A delay in monetary union might be regrettable, but arguably the Franco-German relationship would experience still greater tensions if the single currency were launched under economic conditions unfavourable to France. Privately, Mr Kohl is thought to share this opinion. It is a pity that he and Mr Chirac consider it a taboo subject for public debate.