German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was 87 years old, French President Charles de Gaulle 72. And yet it fell to these two elderly men, with memories of two catastrophic wars fresh in their minds, to inaugurate a new beginning in relations between Germany and France.
On January 22, 1963, in the Elysee Palace in Paris, the official residence of the French president, the two men shook hands, exchanged a brotherly kiss, and signed a treaty declaring the age-old enemies were now friends.
It had not been 18 years since the end of World War II, and millions of veterans on both sides had many memories to overcome; even before the rise of Adolf Hitler, German propaganda had drummed into schoolchildren that France was Germany's oldest enemy.
But it was precisely because Adenauer and de Gaulle brought this experience with them that they gave the cause "all the more credibility," said Frank Baasner, director of the Franco-German Institute.
Still, the friendship treaty would not have been possible, Baasner says, without ordinary French and German people. Long before the signing, "there was, after all, a very beautiful, amazing, courageous rapprochement between people in society," he told DW. "[The treaty] was the culmination of a process of rapprochement that came from within society. We must not forget that."
Strategic interests diverged
But this reset was not just about gestures of humanity. Both Adenauer and de Gaulle had strategic goals to pursue and to some extent these conflicted.
"On Adenauer's side, the priority was very clear, in fact, it was his credo: We want to anchor ourselves in the West," said Baasner. "And that meant partnership with the United States, and it meant reconciliation with France."
De Gaulle, on the other hand, wanted to tie the new West Germany to France in order to prevent it from allying with the US and Great Britain against France. Only a week earlier, de Gaulle had vetoed Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, the precursor of the EU. For his part, US President John F. Kennedy even tried to prevent the Elysee Treaty.
He failed, but he managed to get the Germans to insert a preamble shortly before the treaty was ratified in the Bundestag, making it clear that cooperation in NATO and the partnership with the US would not be affected. Outwardly, Paris agreed to this, but behind the scenes, de Gaulle is said to have raged, according to his confidante Alain Peyrefitte, "The Americans are hollowing out our treaty. And why? Only because German politicians are afraid they're not bowing low enough before the Anglo-Saxons."
Youth exchanges and town twinning
Despite these early frictions, the Elysee Treaty is now considered a great success. Its goal was to stage regular intergovernmental consultations to find as much agreement as possible on foreign and security policy. "I think a lot has come about over the course of the cooperation," says Baasner. He says the French side noticed "that the Germans, despite their strong ties to the US, didn't give up on the treaty, but actually filled it out."
And it was not only politicians and high officials who were to meet in the Elysee era. In July 1963, the Franco-German Youth Office was founded, which to date has brought around ten million young Germans and French people closer to their neighbors through its exchange program. Numerous town twinning initiatives have been established in the past 60 years. The Franco-German military brigade was founded in 1989. Three years later, the French-German TV channel Arte went on the air.
On the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty in 2003, both sides agreed to hold regular joint ministerial councils. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron, in his now-famous Sorbonne speech on the future of the EU, also called for the Elysee Treaty to be forged anew. That resulted in the 2019 Aachen Treaty, which includes such things as a Franco-German parliamentary assembly and a citizens' fund to bring people closer together.
Cozy Merkozy, but Schacron — not so much
Some of the pairs heading the respective governments have gelled better than others. The hands-on Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the aristocratic liberal Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s shared a deep friendship, together laying the foundation for a single European currency. The Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and the Socialist Francois Mitterand were separated both by political affiliation and mentality, but in 1984 they created an iconic image of reconciliation when they held hands at the Verdun military cemetery in memory of the dead of the two world wars.
Later, the thoughtful Angela Merkel and the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy also worked very closely together in the euro crisis that began in 2008, leading media to meld their names into Merkozy. The term Merkron (for Merkel and Macron), on the other hand, never took off, as the two did not harmonize very well, and a neologism combining the names of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz had not even been attempted.
At joint appearances, Macron and Scholz like to ritually reaffirm their nations' close relations, but so far there has not been much evidence of personal closeness. Politically, too, there is a certain friction at the moment, especially on how to deal with the war in Ukraine. It took a long time for Macron and Scholz to travel together to Kyiv. Scholz has shown himself more hesitant than Macron in delivering arms to Ukraine. On the issue of a gas price cap, Macron even publicly warned that Germany was "isolating itself" in Europe — an affront to Berlin. The two sides are also making very slow progress on joint armaments projects, for example on the development of a fighter aircraft.
But Frank Baasner of the Franco-German Institute says these problems should not be overstated. "The ability to find dialogue even in crisis situations, that hasn't gone away," he said. "It is true that the differences of interest are there, and the strategic orientations are
perhaps also different. Germany has always had difficulties with adopting something like a geostrategic view of the world, which France has always had. Now Germany may be at the point of having to do so as well." In this respect, he sees a good chance that the two partners will come closer together again.
The language issue
In any case, French and German societies are united in their view of the importance of Franco-German cooperation for the European Union. In an IPSOS study conducted to mark this year's Élysée anniversary, eight out of 10 French people and the same number of Germans believe that the Franco-German motor is important for the future of the EU, though only 67% of young (18-24-year-old) French people think so.
And what about the language issue? The number of German-speaking students in France has been declining significantly for years, while France has been suffering from shortages of German teachers. The situation is similar on the German side of the border.
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was probably the only French president since the signing of the Élysée Treaty who spoke reasonably good German, and none of the German chancellors spoke enough French for a conversation. "On s'arrange avec l'anglais," Giscard d'Estaing once sighed in an interview, when asked about the language barrier. One helps oneself with English.
This article was originally written in German.
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