Two days after Angela Merkel received Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German national anthem rang out from under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris whilst the French president and German chancellor stood in silent remembrance before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This year’s 11 November, which for almost a century now has commemorated the French victory over Germany and the end of World War I, will be unlike any previous celebration of this momentous date. This is the first time the head of the German government will be standing shoulder to shoulder with a French president to commemorate the end of the First World War, marking a turning point in what is already a top-priority bilateral relation.
“We remember the massive silhouette of Helmut Kohl holding hands with François Mitterrand at the Douaumont ossuary back in 1984 – but that was in September, to commemorate the Battle of Verdun,” recall Le Monde. “Now the time has come. The last French WWI veteran is dead. And Angela Merkel (55) represents a new generation that was born after World War II. We are turning the page,” Le Mondecomments rapturously, adding that “Germany and France are planning to set up a joint ministry, in a form that has yet to be fleshed out, which could be operational by January 2010.”
Berlin – sounding-board for the Sarko show
“Anything seems possible. A joint Franco-German minister,” presages the Frankfurter Rundschau, “a common European agenda or industrial policy” – even, much to Paris’ delight, Angela’s slashing taxes! But if, above and beyond this “new French ardour for the Germans”, we want to know what changes are on the cards for Franco-German relations, “we are asked to wait and see next year,” notes the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Berlin is mainly afraid of serving as a sounding-board for the latest Sarko show.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is less gung-ho, observing that, if each country has the right to fête its victories, Germans are liable to feel forever sidelined by these commemorations: “In its ‘long road West’, has German mimicry reached a point where, even if it means some contortions of political memory, we can now seek to be associated with the victors – in our capacity as the vanquished?” So the FAZ proposes depoliticising the Armistice to render it “a moment of remembrance for all the fallen soldiers of every nation”, though pointing out that this might be hard to do in Paris beneath an Arc de Triomphe dedicated to Napoleonic victories…
Friendship confined to political circles
“What with numerous political symbols that way tending, a joint TV channel (Arte), a Franco-German history textbook, joint ministerial councils etc., this is more than a reconciliation: it is a genuine friendship that the Franco-German duo have forged over the years,” proclaims La Croix. However, tempers the Roman Catholic daily, the ties between the two countries seem to be chiefly confined to political circles. A modern history professor cited by the paper points to the “gulf between the French government’s hand-over-first efforts to celebrate Franco-German amity and the reality of (French) citizens who know nothing about their neighbours. The number of French students doing part of their studies at German universities is steadily dwindling, for example, and German language learning is losing ground with each passing year.”
Still and all, concludes Le Monde, November 11th could well become the symbol of a “community of destiny and memory”, as the date provides the ideal symbolic perspective, “documenting, as it does, Europe’s suicide and adumbrating the reasons for forging the European Union: to make forever impossible, within its frontiers, war, the Holocaust, and the violation of fundamental rights.” As the Parisian daily notes in an aside, however, “For donkey’s years now, November 11, at 11.11 am sharp, has marked the official kickoff for carnival in Germany.” A carnival to which the French president has now made a contribution of his own, unwittingly kicking up a storm in a teacup by claiming on Facebook that he was there too, viz. at the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. Actually, avers the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné, the then young mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine was indeed in Berlin in November 1989, only not the day the Wall came tumbling down.