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Schröder Bids Adieu in Paris

Outgoing German Chancellor Schröder is in Paris Friday on a last official visit to meet with President Chirac, symbolizing the end of a particularly close-knit Franco-German era.

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In happier times

The official reason for Gerhard Schröder's visit to Paris Friday is to discuss an upcoming EU summit dealing with the future of the bloc's rejected constitution with his counterpart Jacques Chirac.

But there's little doubt that unofficially the purpose of the trip is a more personal one -- bidding goodbye to a close friend and ally.

Schröder is set to be replaced by conservative leader Angela Merkel as Germany's new chancellor next month, a move that will spell an end to the close official ties cultivated by Schröder and Chirac over the past years.

Merkel, who shares a good relationship with France's interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, has made no bones about the fact that although she considers the Franco-German alliance to be an essential element in the EU, she will not lavish attention on it to the extent of overriding other EU members.

Angela Merkel bei Chirac

Angela Merkel with Chirac in Paris

"We are anxious to make the Franco-German relationship work for the benefit of Europe. But the other countries must not have the feeling that we are deciding things above their heads," Merkel said during a visit to Paris earlier this year.

"We need to show our ability to react inventively to renew the Franco-German partnership."

End of cosy ties?

If Merkel does make good on those statements once she becomes chancellor, it will signal a marked departure from the cozy, privileged Franco-German relationship built by Schröder and Chirac over the past few years.

Apart from an extraordinary level of contacts ranging from regular high-level ministerial meetings to increased student exchanges, the two leaders, who are said to enjoy an excellent personal chemistry, have stood united on many fronts in recent years.

Most notably, it was their joint opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 that brought the two leaders closer than ever, leading to a substantial chill in relations with Washington.

Franco-German motor

Both Chirac and Schröder are also said to have shared a common vision of closer European integration, particularly over preserving the European social model. There was even talk of a Franco-German motor driving EU affairs.

Gipfeltreffen in Berlin: Blair, Chirac und Schröder mit Galeriebild

Blair, Chirac and Schröder on the way to a press conference in Berlin

The two leaders have also been at odds with British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the direction of European economic policy and his insistence that EU countries need to decrease the state's influence on the economy.

This week during a farewell speech in his hometown of Hanover, Schröder stressed the importance of the Franco-German link, saying it was crucial for the defense of Europe's social model.

The two also joined forces over the controversial EU constitution, pushing for its acceptance at successive summits. The treaty was finally dealt a death blow after rejections from Dutch and French voters in separate referendums.

The latter, which left the EU in disarray, is also largely seen as the trigger that led to the gradual dilution of the Franco-German axis, adding to political weaknesses and economic strife and high unemployment in both France and Germany earlier this year. The 72-year-old Chirac is also battling a sharp drop in popularity at home.

Schröder's departure is likely to heighten the feeling that the Franco-German motor as it was driven by the two close allies, might just be running out of steam.

"A special relationship"

Officially, however, both Berlin and Paris have been at pains over recent weeks to stress the importance of the Franco-German relationship despite a change in government in Berlin.

"These elections are not worrying. Elections are democracy and the Franco-German relationship will not be affected," Catherine Colonna, France's minister for European Affairs, told news agency AFP recently.

"It's a specific and special relationship."

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