Fifty years ago, Charles de Gaulle became the first post-war French president to visit Germany, planting the seed of reconciliation between the former enemies. Today, their partnership acts as the motor for the EU.
Standing on the decorated balcony of Bonn's city hall, Charles de Gaulle stretched his hands toward the crowd: "Long live Bonn! Long live Germany! Long live the Franco-German friendship!"
Applause erupted as the German people cheered - the same people against whom he fought in two world wars. De Gaulle was wounded in the First World War, in which he served as a French army captain and was subsequently held in a German internment camp. He later served as a general during the Second World War, leading the resistance against the Nazis and their French collaborators.
In September of 1962, de Gaulle became the first French head of state to visit West Germany. He brought a message of reconciliation in the language that he never wanted to speak again. In front of German soldiers, he quoted Carl Zuckmayer, an author who was persecuted by the Nazis.
"Yesterday it was our duty to be enemies, today it is our right to be brothers," De Gaulle said.
A bumpy start
The Franco-German rapprochement had already become reality on a personal level between the two countries' top statesmen: Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer are connected by a deep friendship.
De Gaulle hoped that the Franco-German reconciliation would guide the post-war order in Europe. He wanted to turn what was the European Economic Community (EEC) into a political union. On a bilateral level, a friendship treaty with Germany, the Elysée Treaty, was supposed to move Europe in this direction.
"The most important thing is to never lose the trust of friends," Adenauer said during the signing in January 1963. "Without this treaty, there will be no European unity."
But the way there was a bumpy one. As long as de Gaulle was in power, he blocked British accession to the EEC. Then there were recurring fights over money. It took almost 20 years until another Franco-German duo gave European integration another major push forward.
For a European Germany
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made it clear in a speech to parliament in May 1983 that Europe was not intended to be a marriage of convenience. Kohl warned that the unification of Europe was originally envisioned to be "far more than an offer of material advantages," and that's "the way it has to be again."
His vision of a political community found a partner in French President Francois Mitterrand. On September 22, 1984, the French and German leaders stood hand-in-hand at the cemetery in Verdun. During a minute of silence, the two leaders remembered the thousands who fell on both sides in the two world wars. The slightly-built French socialist, who was wounded during the Second World War, stood in solidarity with the massive German conservative in a pose which became an iconic historic image. And it explains why the dream of a politically unified Europe did not collapse when the balance of power in Europe suddenly shifted.
Against a German Europe
The fall of the Iron Curtain between East and West gave divided Germany the chance to reunite itself. Berlin was suddenly thrust into the center of Europe. In Paris, that awakened old fears of German great power ambitions and a Germanized Europe. Mitterrand called for a European Germany. He agreed to the re-unification only because Kohl was prepared to accept more integration.
The chancellor spoke enthusiastically about a "United States of Europe," in which national identities would continue to exist, but without one nation casting its shadow over another. According to Kohl, it would be a new Europe "in which we stand together for a future of peace, freedom, prosperity and security." Those were the goals that the 1992 Maastricht Treaty laid down in writing, giving birth to the European Union.
After Maastricht, everything progressed quickly. In 1995, the borders began to open within the EU, and seven years later the euro was introduced as the common currency. A working group was also tasked with drafting a European constitution. Kohl and Mitterrand were no longer in power, but their legacy made possible the EU's largest eastward expansion, when in 2004 the EU's membership rose from 15 to 25.
It's become a ritual for new leaders in Berlin and Paris to state their commitment to the Franco-German partnership. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Berlin shortly after winning the election in 2007.
"Never should this friendship, which has stood through so much, be sacrificed," he told Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But their common mission was the most difficult since the beginning of the unification of Europe. The expanded EU was in pressing need of reform. The treaty which was designed to make the EU better able to act was rejected by European citizens. The first version was voted down by the French and the Dutch; the second version failed in Ireland. The applause for reconciliation which de Gaulle, Adenauer, Mitterrand and Kohl had experienced, had given way to a growing skepticism.
Personal relationship a key element
The development of the Franco-German friendship was in the past always closely connected to the personal relationship between the two countries' national leaders. The cooperation between German chancellors and French presidents from different political camps was often particularly fruitful - like Kohl and Mitterrand for example, or more recently Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Jacques Chirac.
Now, France has a new president - Francois Hollande. The socialist Hollande and conservative Merkel, who openly campaigned for Sarkozy, are now searching for a common way forward. The survival of the euro and the unity of Europe depend on their relationship.