Amid the Euro Crisis, an Old French-German Tension Resurfaces

At the center of the European experiment since its start, the phenomenon is getting more attention in France and in Germany

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, and Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti, shake hands at the end of a press conference in Strasbourg / AP

Sometimes it's the tiny, passive-aggressive exchanges that say it all. First, French paper Le Monde ran a story about "fear of a 'German Europe.'" Then, Monday, German paper Die Welt ran a story about Le Monde's story and the French fearing a German Europe. "Admittedly, the renowned French paper had at least the politeness to put a question mark on the headline on the front page," ran the German paper's response, "but the article within left no doubt that 'fear of a German Europe is growing among senior French politicians.'"

Die Welt's pointed out that it's not just Le Monde and the "Parisian journalist with the best government sources" echoing this view, but "nearly all French media." Die Welt went through a number of negative quotes from the economics magazine Challenges, the papers Le Figaro (pro-Sarkozy) and Le Nouvel Observateur (left-leaning), the weekly Journal du Dimanche. Clearly, the paper concludes, "behind the painstakingly constructed harmony of the German-French leading pair a conflict is flaring that one had assumed to have been overcome, historically."

A loaded sentence, that. But given Le Monde's collection of links on the European crisis containing a whole section devoted to "the French-German relationship," perhaps the media's collective mind was there even before Die Welt decided to point it out explicitly.

Though it's easy for disinterested international observers to forget, the European Union in fact originated in French-German tension. French foreign minister Robert Schuman's 1950 proposal to establish the European Coal and Steel Community, one of the precursor's to the modern union, made this quite clear:

The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries. With this aim in view, the French Government proposes that action be taken immediately on one limited but decisive point.

It proposes that Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organization open to the participation of the other countries of Europe. The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims. 

The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.

With this history in mind, the testy Le Monde-Die Welt exchange, and the tension it illustrates, becomes much easier to understand. Certainly any two nation-states leading the EU, as France and Germany currently are, might find themselves eying each other warily as the Union attempts to recover and quite probably restructure itself; restructuring always comes with the possibility of a rebalancing of power, and the crisis itself has exposed German strength. But there's an extra, historical dimension to this tension for those who wish to recall it.

What we see now in Europe is a reversal of some of the conditions under which the European project was founded. In the 1950s, the push towards a united Europe was led by France in part as a response to the then-recent history of German aggression. The part of Germany participating in the Coal and Steel Community was West German, at the time still occupied by the U.S., Britain, and France.

Now, Germany is undoubtedly the senior partner in the French-German leadership of Europe. At the most basic level, Germany is simply in a better financial position; though the markets have finally begun to poke at German bond yields as well, France is the closer of the two to the contagion front lines.

Both the Le Monde article and the Die Welt one betray a conspicuous awareness of this reversal. "Europe committed suicide in the two global conflicts of the twentieth century," wrote the French article's author, Arnaud Leparmentier. He noted that Jacques Attali, former adviser to François Mitterand, brought that up explicitly this weekend: "Today, it is again Germany's turn to hold in its hand the weapon for the continent's collective suicide," Attali said. Historical consciousness is evident even in the verb choice in the article's headline: "The fear of a 'German Europe' reappears" (emphasis added).

In the coming weeks and months, European leaders may be dealing with the specter of a new treaty. BBC's Europe editor Gavin Hewitt has discussed this in detail, suggesting that an "inter-governmental pact between some or all eurozone countries" might be one way leaders try to avoid a complete restructuring. Relative power of member states seems likely, looking at this type of analysis, to become more, rather than less, relevant. So what's the takeaway from Die Welt's and Le Monde's tense little exchange? For those of us looking to follow the coming frenzy and understand its underlying dynamics, clearly a history review might be the place to start.