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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
From the battlefield to Brussels
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Jacques Schroeder, Gerhard Chirac. Chancellor Chirac even.

Schroeder and Chirac
Relations have not always been so cordial
French and German newspapers have devoted many inches this week to analysing the significance of French President Jacques Chirac representing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at a European Union summit on Friday in a first for the western club.

For two countries who have been at war three times in modern history, and for two leaders whose own personal relationship has not been unproblematic, the decision has been seen as a milestone in Franco-German relations and a testimony to the depths of European integration.

The EU's founding fathers, who saw closer integration in part as a means of containing a Germany which had recently conquered much of the continent, may have needed pinching if they were still alive.

Let's face it, while we all feel fine about Chirac representing Schroeder, the French would never accept the opposite scenario
Jean-Louis Validire
Le Figaro
But commentators on both sides of the border agree that while a French leader could represent a German, "President Schroeder" would still be a headline too far.

"At one level people don't really think about history and the war any more - after all many of us didn't experience it," says Jean-Louis Validire of the conservative French daily Le Figaro.

"But let's face it, while we all feel fine about Chirac representing Schroeder, the French would never accept the opposite scenario."

And the Germans, according to Christoph von Marschall of Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel, are all too aware of this.

"Chancellor Schroeder as the executor of French agricultural policies for example? There would be uproar among our neighbours."

Hot and cold

Franco-German history aside, Mr Schroeder has himself had a rocky relationship with the neighbouring leader.

For starters, Mr Chirac, a conservative, backed the then incumbent German chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1997 election which saw the Social Democrat Schroeder come to power.

While Mr Schroeder did make his first post-election foreign trip to Paris, a snub was soon to follow.

In a gesture that shocked much of France, the German chancellor rejected Mr Chirac's invitation in 1998 to join himself and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at a ceremony marking the end of World War I - and the allies' victory over German forces.

Citing prior commitments, Mr Schroeder said he was unable to attend, but aides said the chancellor felt under no obligation to attend a state ceremony dedicated to such distant events.

Motor revives

And as a Germany which felt less bogged down by the past began to take a more assertive role on the European stage, other more open altercations followed.

Serious tensions developed in 2001 after Mr Schroeder requested that Germany's post-unification population be reflected through greater EU voting rights, a demand Mr Chirac saw as undermining the all important Franco-German parity.

A year later, Mr Chirac was to make his displeasure with the German chancellor felt when he decided, yet again, to support the candidate standing against Mr Schroeder in the country's general elections - Bavarian conservative leader Edmund Stoiber.

Indeed, it appeared it would take something rather dramatic to bring the two men together.

Although the Franco-German "motor" of the European Union slowly spluttered back into life in 2002, US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave it a big push earlier this year.

'Old Europe'

As threats emerged from both Washington and London to launch military action against Iraq, Mr Chirac and Mr Schroeder stepped forward as the biggest critics of war.

Lumped together by members of the Bush administration under the derogatory term "Old Europe", the two men forged a close alliance.

The changing dynamics of international relations and the desire in some European capitals to ensure Europe remains a heavy counterweight to US power proved a driving factor in improving relations between the two, observers note.

At a regular Franco-German summit in January, the two parties agreed in principle to a raft of joint initiatives - including regular joint cabinet meetings and the prospect of dual nationality for citizens of both countries.

Many of the plans remain vague, but no-one has been left in any doubt of the evolving relations between the two countries, and Friday's appearance by Mr Chirac as Mr Schroeder is seen as a clear example of the warming ties.

Substance and symbols

Nonetheless, commentators warn against reading too much into Mr Chirac's double-act.

"Today's meeting is not really very important. The whole affair lacks substance. It's certainly symbolic, but that's as far as it goes," says Le Figaro's Mr Validire.

Even opposition MPs - who declare that the fact that Mr Schroeder felt he had to attend a key parliamentary vote is indicative of the weakness of his government - agree that Mr Schroeder's absence is not of major import.

Ruprecht Polenz of the Christian Democrats says nonetheless he worries how other countries already concerned with the strength of the Franco-German axis within the EU will view the gesture.

"Certainly it is symbolic more than anything. I just don't know if it is the right symbol."

Franco-German entente boosted
15 Oct 03  |  Europe
Schroeder sees powerful EU
03 Apr 03  |  Europe

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