Several French communities have elected right-wing extremists as their new mayors, putting their German sister cities in an awkward position. Many are now pondering whether to cut ties or stay connected.
There are more than 2,000 partnerships between German and French communities,so-called sister cities. As early as the year 836 A.D., the German city of Paderborn and the French city of Le Mans promised each other "eternal sisterhood." It's the oldest such partnership in Europe.
But now several French communities have elected right-wing extremists from the National Front as their new mayors, putting their German sister cities in a pickle: What to do when friendship becomes a political issue?
Seven votes and a sleepless night
"When I read the election outcome I had a sleepless night," says Georg Schäfer, spokesman for the friendship association between the German city of Hochheim am Main and the southern French city of Le Pontet. "And then there was the question: can we go on like this, or is that not possible. It has been a bit of strain for the last couple of days."
What Schäfer is referring to are the recent local elections in Le Pontet. A young politician from the far-right National Front (FN) recently became mayor by a margin of only seven votes.
The German town of Hochheim am Main is Le Pontet's sister city, which even made it into Hochheim's cityscape . It only takes Schäfer 15 minutes by foot to walk to Le Pontet Square, which is right in front of Hochheim city hall.
The partnership between the two cities seemed so perfect, with each city nestled in idyllic surroundings and big on wine-growing. About 100 families from Hochheim are in personal contact with their partner city and thus far they trust that the friendship will be stronger than the xenophobia.
According to Schäfer, the school exchange program still works well, and swimming associations are currently trying to schedule a visit for both cities. The next big project is a joint trip to Berlin at the end of June. Already, the idea is to use the train trip as an occasion to discuss Le Pontet's swing to the right.
Schäfer does not believe in breaking off contact with Le Pontet. "That would only play into the hands of the nationalists if we were to say that now we don't want anything to do with you and the city anymore. That's nonsense, we don't want that, and no one is planning to do that."
Schäfer says he is aware of the openly xenophobic comments of the National Front, but he has not yet met the new mayor.
"The question is how friendly and warm-heartedly do you treat someone like that," he says. "We have to wait and see how the personal relationship will be when we visit each other. They always have a large city fair on Pentacost. The mayor, the wine queen and the wine princess [of Hochheim] want to go there; it's a tradition, but so far they are hesitant."
No shaking hands with fascists
Two Belgian cities have already decided to break off contact with their French sister cities. "Politically we cannot keep working with people who spread such opinions," said the mayor of the Belgian city of Farciennes.
A similar situation happened in Germany in the mid-1990s. Back then, the French cities of Toulon, Vitrolles, Marignane and Orange voted for far-right mayors, which bothered their German partner cities of Mannheim, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Wolfsburg, Rastatt and Dillenburg.
The mayor of Rastatt at the time said he wouldn't shake hands with a fascist. And so the five German cities broke with their respective sister cities, at least officially.
"It was a controversial decision"
"The city partnerships are not only kept alive through official channels and the visits of mayors," says the current mayor of Dillenburg, Michael Lotz. "They are also kept alive by residents staying in touch. And no city council meeting has the power or the intention to say 'now you're not allowed to meet up anymore,' that's obvious."
Was the official breaking with the sister city back then the right decision? "It was a controversial decision," Lotz says today, emphasizing that many back then thought that you shouldn't set yourself up as a judge of democratic decisions - after all, elected is elected.
When a coal mine exploded in the French city of Courrières in 1906, a rescue team from the German city of Herne was sent to help
Twelve years later the two sister cities are back in touch, wanting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partnership. And since the Dillenburg residents don't have any objections to the way the mayor of Orange has governed his city, who moreover resigned from his membership with the National Front party, nothing stands in the way of a reunion.
Friendship based on a catastrophe
Some German cities are closely connected to their French sister cities through their history, such as the German mining city of Herne. In 1906, a coal mine exploded in northern France. "More than 1,000 French miners lost their lives," says Horst Schiereck, mayor of Herne.
"A rescue team from Herner was sent there and that was the cornerstone of this friendship, at the beginning only between miners." Since then, the cities of Herne and Hénin-Beaumont are connected and will stay connected in the future.
"It's an important friendship between nations on a local level and we don't want to give it up," Schiereck says, even though he's a Social Democrat and says he is repulsed by the stance of the National Front. And the new mayor of Herne's sister city, Steeve Briois, is not just someone from the National Front party; he's in fact their general-secretary.
According to Schereck, the city of Herne first has to consult before any decisions about the future of the city partnership will be made. "You know, the partnership survived World War I, it survived the Nazi regime and two German attacks against France - I believe that a mayor from the National Front won't stop us from cultivating friendship between families, clubs and associations in the future either."