Last night’s TV news and this morning’s papers show pictures of Chancellor Merkel and Emmanuel Macron chatting pleasantly in Merkel’s office in Berlin. To my knowledge, neither speaks, nor understands, the other’s language but both can get by in English. They were probably indulging in small talk, in halting English, about the weather on the East Coast or Mr. Macron’s flight schedule before the cameras were ushered out, an interpreter was called in and more serious discussions began.
However contrived they may appear, the pictures are nevertheless important. Any serious candidate for the Presidency of France knows only too well that successful co-operation within the E.U depends crucially on France and Germany seeing eye-to-eye, more than ever now that the U.K is heading for the exit. Any further move towards more effective governance of the Euro area for instance can only be successful if Germany loosens up. It will not do so, and not just because Herr Schäuble says no, unless France makes a serious attempt to put its economic and financial house in order first. François Fillon, when he was riding high in the polls, had a meeting with Merkel some months ago. Emmanuel Macron has now, one assumes, been taken over the same ground.
There are at last two strands in the Franco-German narrative: political co-operation and the folk memory. Without going back further than the second world war, the two are still alive and well, if somewhat divergent.
Political co-operation, initially driven by reconciliation, was considered on both sides as essential to normalising relations between the two countries as well as more wide-ranging co-operation within what is now the E.U. It nevertheless took until 1963 for De Gaulle and Adenauer to sign the Elysée Treaty on friendship and co-operation and undertake reciprocal official visits. Since then, whenever political and economic co-operation has flourished, it has been through privileged relations between French and German leaders. Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt laid the foundations of the common currency in the 1970s, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl traded German unification for the setting up of the Euro in 1991, before famously joining hands at a ceremony honouring the war dead of both countries in Verdun in 1994. No first time meeting between a French and a German minister can start or end without at least lip service being paid to Franco-German co-operation.
In 2017, it is hardly a scoop to suggest that the German authorities, whatever the outcome of their own elections this autumn, are keen to see the end of the Hollande Presidency and are looking forward to a fresh start.
As to the folk memory, it is also very much alive, at least in France. Memories of the wartime occupation, not to speak of SS massacres in places like Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, abound. Go to any medium-sized French railway station and you will probably find, fairly prominently displayed, a plaque with the names of four or five railway workers who were “fusillés par les allemands” during the occupation. (“shot by the Germans” sounds funny in English and even funnier in German but in French it sounds normal). Many street plaques in Paris commemorate the spot where free French solders were killed during the liberation of the city in August 1944. Flowers are placed next to them every year on the anniversary. Back in the 1970s, I remember only too well the barely concealed discomfort of the father of one of my ex-wife’s friends on the news that his daughter had decided to marry a German. In the village in Brittany where I have spent many summer holidays I was once told, in a confidential whisper, that one of our neighbours had two sons fathered by a German officer during the occupation.
On the German side, despite the many tourists who flock to France’s beaches and countryside during the summer (far fewer French people return the compliment!) there is still a feeling of unease not far below the surface. “Die Franzosen - das ist ein eigenartiges Volk” (“The French - they’re a funny lot”) one German department store manager, said to me quite unprompted, not so long ago.
Lingering hostility and suspicion in both peoples will take generations to fade, and only as long as political co-operation continues and mutual benefit results. One can only hope that both Chancellor Merkel and M. Macron were keenly aware of all this in their discussions yesterday.