When Love Across Borders Fades | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 02.07.2005
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When Love Across Borders Fades

The tight-knit Franco-German relationship has been frayed following France's rejection of the EU constitution. But the chinks aren't just confined to politics. Even the people of France and Germany are drawing apart.


Prost and Salut, to a weakening friendship unfortunately

Britain, which has taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, wants Brussels to tackle unemployment in the way that has been successfully tried in Britain and to shift spending from farmers towards research and development.

France has already said that it will try and block these reforms.

But, while in the past, Paris would have been able to count on the automatic support of Germany, the long alliance between these two core founding members of the EU has been weakened by the emphatic French rejection of the European constitution.

Personal problems?

Perhaps more worrying still for those who dream of a strong, centralized EU, the people of France and Germany seem to be drawing not closer together but further apart.

Every year, 200,000 young people are ferried from France to Germany and from Germany to France on exchange programs run by the Franco-German Youth Office.

France is the biggest market for German goods and vice versa. Even the head of Airbus is German. On the face of it, the Franco-German relationship seems a model of European integration.

Bildergalerie Gerhard Schröder 6

Chirac and Schröder in one of their warm moments

But all is not well in the couple life of France and Germany. There are growing signs that the cozy relationship portrayed between the leaders of the two neighbors in the past isn't shared by the people on the ground.

The problem, says Paris-based political scientist Hans Stark, is French "ennui."

The French are less interested in Germany, Stark said. "That's because they are not scared about Germany any more. German theatre, German literature, German classical music is less attractive for a broad spectrum of society. So, for them, Germany is a country which is very, very far away."

No takers for Deutsch

A further measure of the widening distance between the two peoples is the falling popularity of the German language in France.

Plakat Marie und Pierre lernen Deutsch

"Marie and Pierre learn German" -- a poster in Paris trying to woo French youth to learn German

This spring a rather desperate television advertisement trying to lure the French to learn Deutsch -- featuring pink Birkenstock sandals, kinky lederhosen and a beautiful, blond German teacher -- illustrated that the German language is in a crisis in France.

Indeed, German is hardly heard on the streets in France, except maybe among tourists in Paris.

A recent report commissioned by the French government shows that in just five years, the percentage of French children learning German in state schools has dropped from 30 to 10 percent.

According to the report's Franco-German author Heinz Wismann, German is fast becoming like Latin -- dead for all but a tiny elite.

"We have more and more private schools where people from the higher classes of society send their children," said Wismann. "And there, they learn German, they learn Latin. Greek and Latin and German --it's become the secret sign of belonging to the higher classes in France."

German food too fatty for refined French

And it's not just the German language that is becoming such a rarity in France. Even German food hardly has any takers any more.

Gerhard Weber, the head chef at the Stubli, Paris's one and only German restaurant, uses traditional German ingredients to make a new German cuisine. But, he says, French attitudes haven't much changed since Napoleon's first encounter with black German bread.

"When Napoleon arrived in Germany he asked people 'bread?' so they give him black bread," said Weber. "Napoleon looked at the black bread and said "that's bon pour Nickel" because his horse was called Nickel. Germans understand 'bon pour Nickel'... pumpernickel. So today the black bread's called pumpernickel."

Deutsches Essen: Sauerkraut mit Würstchen, Knödeln und Fleisch

German Sauerkraut with sausage and meat

Weber said that the French still harbor stereotypes when it comes to German food. "They think German food is too fat... only sauerkraut, sausage -- and it's all heavy."

Heavy or 'lourd' is an often used pejorative term in French meaning clumsy, slow, boring and stupid. Light or 'léger', on the other hand, means subtle, quick, witty and bright. The idea that French is 'léger' and German is 'lourd' seems to be deeply ingrained in the French psyche.

It applies to people, food and to books too, it seems.

Giesla Kaufmann, who runs a little German bookshop housing recent literature, most of it translated in French, in the artsy Parisian quarter of Montmartre, confirms that the French are largely oblivious to developments in the German literary world.

"Go into a French bookshop and the owner probably knows some German authors," said Kaufmann. "But it wouldn't occur to most people to read a German book. They think it's either going to be some impenetrable work of philosophy or about Nazism. Either way, a pain."

Globalization part of the problem

The reasons for the diminishing importance of German and Germany in France may not be evident. But some think it's fallout from the march of globalization.

For the Franco-German linguist Heinz Wismann, Europe in general and France in particular are going through a period of national retrenchment in reaction to what many see as the threat of global markets and global culture.

German culture may be the antithesis of the dumbed-down culture that sells across the globe. But, the French are closing themselves off to it nevertheless. As a consequence, ignorance about Germany is on the rise.

Schülerinnen während des Unterrichts

"The French have this Prussian image of Germany. For example, French schoolchildren who have been sent to Germany on exchange programs are amazed to find that German schools are much less disciplined than in France," said Kaufmann. "French schools are much more rigid but the French don't know it."

Whatever the reason, it's plain that the French are not burning with curiosity about its Eastern neighbor any more.

Telling statistics compiled by the French foreign ministry on the number of its nationals who have gone to live abroad show that there are now nearly three times more French people living in Britain than in Germany. That is despite the much stronger business links between Germany and France.

There's little doubt that no matter how many German washing machines the French buy and treaties they sign or how many government initiatives push them towards their bigger neighbor -- Germany is slipping from the French national consciousness.

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