PARIS — France and Germany have solemnly celebrated the 40th anniversary of the so-called Elysee Treaty, signed by French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on Jan. 22, 1963. Last month governments and parliaments in both Paris and Berlin held joint meetings, as French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder emphasized the closeness and warmth of their cooperation in most fields.

Nobody three months ago would have ventured to forecast such an outcome, for the Franco-German engine, once again, didn’t seem to being work well. Ideologically, the conservative Chirac and liberal Schroeder looked far apart. Chirac had openly supported Schroeder’s Christian Democratic challenger during the general election campaign in September.

The two capitals also were at odds over several important issues, such as the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, the changes needed to adapt institutional structures to the enlargement of EU membership, and attitudes toward candidate countries from the former Soviet bloc as well as the two Mediterranean islands Cyprus and Malta.

It was not the first time that the treaty had seemed doomed. After all, the treaty’s only requirement, following the creation of a Franco-German office for youth, was that officials and civil servants of both sides develop frequent contacts to try to reach a common stand on various problems. Emphasis was put on defense, but the commitment indicated in the text was far from the wish expressed by de Gaulle four months earlier, during a visit to the Federal Republic of Germany, that a “unique and similar defense” be established. The treaty failed to provide a recipe for such an ambitious target.

Adenauer was 87 when the treaty was signed and about to retire. His vice chancellor and eventual successor Ludwig Erhard, then the economy minister, had not deemed it necessary to accompany Adenauer to Paris. Because of his fear of the reactions from other European community members, though, Erhard made sure that the treaty made almost no mention of economic problems.

This was a treaty that the United States, Britain and a large majority of the German establishment did not approve of. De Gaulle had just vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Community and turned down a British-American proposal for a “multilateral” nuclear force in which Germany, without ever having a “finger on the button,” would at least have had a say on how the force was used. Hence the Bonn Parliament decided to add a “preamble” to the treaty emphasizing the need for close cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — exactly the opposite of de Gaulle’s intention to build a Europe that was independent as possible of the two superpowers. No wonder de Gaulle reacted to the German Bundestag’s action by comparing treaties to “roses and young girls.”

That said, the frequent meetings prescribed by the Elysee Treaty took place regularly during the following years, as it so happened that the two men charged with coordinating them were a German who admired de Gaulle and a first-class French diplomat who was often critical of his president. This situation helped give a new start to the special relationship between the two countries once de Gaulle had left the scene.

Curiously, the relationship was enhanced by the friendship that managed to develop between French and German leaders whose political affiliations would seem to be in conflict: Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and liberal President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, followed by the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and the Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Needless to say, Britain would have loved to see the Franco-German couple divorce or at least open its doors. But the feeling, prevailing on both banks of the Rhine, was that reconciliation between the two countries, which had waged three wars resulting in the deaths of millions of their citizens in less than a century, was sort of a miracle that had to be preserved at all cost.

Following a rather lengthy period of hesitancy toward each other, Chirac and Schroeder by now obviously share that conclusion. Thanks to major German concessions, they managed to agree on the delicate issue of agriculture as well as the idea — which is yet a hard sell to most of their EU colleagues — of a double EU presidency, with the EU Commission’s chairman being elected by the Strasbourg Assembly.

The main impetus for their rapprochement, though, is evidently their common fear of the possible consequences of an American attack against Iraq. The prospect of a war is very unpopular in both nations, as it is in most, despite the support given to U.S. President George W Bush by the British, Spanish, Italian and Israeli governments.

A major reason that Schroeder was re-elected in September, against all forecasts and in spite of increasing unemployment and slowing economic growth in Germany, was his commitment to prevent German soldiers from taking part in any operation against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The opposition of the French, who played a major role in driving the U.N. talks on the Iraqi issue, had seemed less clear-cut. Now French and German attitudes have tended to converge to the extent that the two leaders are able to celebrate their unity of thought and action.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a leading hawk on Iraq, doesn’t like that convergence and recently went so far as to say publicly that France and Germany are of the “old Europe” and that, fortunately, other nations have assured the U.S. of their backing.

Thus it appears that the Gaullist Chirac has managed to reach a target that de Gaulle had pursued in vain: to get Germany, so often been perceived as trying to dominate Europe and considered by many as likely to revert to militaristic ways once it was reunited, to value its cooperation with France ahead of its alliance with the U.S.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the case if the Soviet threat had not disappeared with the fall of communism. And it’s symbolic that most of the peoples of Eastern Europe that have recovered their independence do not conceal the fact that they feel more secure knowing that they can rely on the U.S. for protection.

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