Rhine Realities: A Local Look at French-German Relations

By Mathieu von Rohr

Sélestat, France, Mayor Marcel Bauer (left) and Emmendingen, Germany, Mayor Stefan Schlatterer: The new dividing line is an economic one. Zoom
Eric Vazzoler / DER SPIEGEL

Sélestat, France, Mayor Marcel Bauer (left) and Emmendingen, Germany, Mayor Stefan Schlatterer: The new dividing line is an economic one.

German Chancelor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are celebrating 50 years of Franco-German relations in Berlin this week. But along the German-French border, thoughts of enmity or reconciliation are a thing of the past. Residents of two towns along the Rhine have different concerns.

Franco-German relations couldn't be better. One side of the border has better wine, while the other offers cheaper supermarkets, and the checkpoints that once marked the border crossings between the two are a thing of the past. Somewhere in between, meanwhile, the remains of the Maginot Line, the concrete fortifications built to protect France from Germany after World War I, are quietly succumbing to wind and weather.

Here along the border, both Paris and Berlin are far away places, and not very relevant to daily life in towns such as Emmendingen, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, or Sélestat, in France's Alsace region. These two towns lie about 30 kilometers (20 miles) apart, with the Rhine River forming a natural border about halfway between them.

This border region provides an excellent example not only of the banalities that form a part of the friendly relationship now taken for granted between these two countries, but also of a new dividing line, this time an economic one. Emmendingen has 3 percent unemployment and an urgent need for skilled laborers. In Sélestat, meanwhile, unemployment is at 9 percent and a quarter of all young adults are without work.

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Photo Gallery: Celebrating 50 Years of Franco-German Friendship
"Anybody who can count to 10 can find work here," says Stefan Schlatterer, mayor of Emmendingen. "The only thing is, they have to be able to do it in German." However, given that few young Alsatians learn the language of their neighbors, attempts by Emmendingen companies to recruit workers on the other side of the border have been largely unsuccessful.

"We do see that they're doing something better over there," says Marcel Bauer, mayor of Sélestat. Textiles and materials processing company Albany International, one of the last remaining industrial firms here, recently had to lay off half of its 250 employees. The same economic imbalance that has affected relations between Paris and Berlin is a fact of life here.

This week, France and Germany mark, with great pomp and circumstance, the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty. Signed by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President General Charles de Gaulle on Jan. 22, 1963, the document laid the cornerstone for postwar rapprochement between the two countries. Many speeches will be given this week, both in the German parliament and elsewhere, many evocations of all that has been achieved, well-deserved praise for this historical reconciliation -- and of course there will be a degree of hypocrisy as well.

A Difficult Period

This is not to say Franco-German relations do not deserve celebration. They do, even if this anniversary comes at something of an inopportune time for both sides -- a time when the euro-zone crisis has strained political relations between the two countries, a time when Germany and France are pursuing opposing approaches to solving the crisis, and at a time when Berlin's dominance within Europe is causing considerable unease in Paris. The election of Socialist François Hollande as France's president only served to further complicate relations with Angela Merkel's conservative government in Germany.

For many people born after World War II, the celebration of a decades-old treaty is little more than a dusty history lesson. Memories of the war have long since faded and it is difficult to even imagine anything other than peace in Europe. Those who first participated in the reconciliation have grown old. These two nations that once had to overcome their hostilities, and eventually even learned to speak of friendship, view one another more matter-of-factly today than they did when the treaty was first signed.

This, too, can be observed here on the border between Baden-Württemberg and Alsace. No other region suffered as deeply from the historical hostility between France and Germany as Alsace, which changed hands four times between 1871 and 1945. "Many people here wore more than one uniform over the course of their lives," says Mayor Bauer, a tall, broad-shouldered man, from his office in Sélestat, the tricolor French flag beside him.

Bauer's father was born in 1909 as a German citizen, Bauer himself in 1949 as a French citizen. Unlike most younger Alsatians, Bauer speaks Alsatian -- a Germanic language -- and High German, in addition to French. Before Bauer was born, three of his siblings died when they stepped into a minefield while playing outdoors in April 1945. Three of his uncles never returned from the Eastern Front, where they were forcibly sent to fight by the Nazis.

Yet Bauer says as a child he never felt hatred toward Germans. Having grown up in the years of reconciliation after the war, what he remembers instead is cycling tours around his town's German partner city on the other side of the Rhine.

This was in the 1960s, when sport and ski clubs from both sides of the Rhine met up regularly, former enemies setting out together for hikes up Hartmannswillerkopf, a rocky peak in the Vosges Mountains that was the site of brutal fighting during World War I. The 1960s also saw the start of many exchange programs that brought together young people from Germany and France, and which played an important role in forging connections between the two countries after the war.

Little remains of such programs, says Mayor Schlatterer in Emmendingen. Schlatterer, 45, a good-humored man with close-cropped hair, says it's been years since Emmendingen ran any sort of school exchange with its partner city. "There's a simple explanation: We've achieved normalcy," the mayor says, adding that it would be impossible at this point to find anyone Emmendingen who would even think of invading France. "What an absurd idea!" he exclaims with a booming laugh.

Too Little Concrete Action

Since those early days of the Franco-German friendship, numerous structures have been put in place with the intention of bringing together German and French politicians. There's the Upper Rhine Council, the Franco-German Circle, a "eurodistrict" for cross-border cooperative projects and much more. Schlatterer, though, says there are too many structures and too little concrete action. The central issue is no longer a need to get to know one another, he says, but rather the problem is that when it comes to planning a cross-border bus line, the project breaks down in the bureaucratic details.

Emmendingen celebrated the anniversary of the Élysée Treaty two weeks ago. All the towns within the district that have French partner cities participated in an exhibition at the district's administrative office in Emmendingen. Marcel Bauer and Stefan Schlatterer both attended. Interest on the part of the general public was fairly limited, Schlatterer says, adding that he has the impression people on the French side of the border showed more interest in the anniversary than those on the German side -- and that the French in general tend more toward marking such occasions with a bit of pomp.

Berlin had a similar reaction when François Hollande announced in February 2011, as part of his campaign platform, that he wanted to issue a "new Élysée Treaty" on the anniversary of the existing treaty. Many in Berlin took this simply as an example of a French penchant for symbolism.

Hollande was never able to explain what exactly he wanted to change about the treaty. At the time, the candidate was fighting to counter an accusation from his opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, that he was gearing up to battle Germany on political issues, and presumably wanted to demonstrate that relations with Germany were important to him. The idea of a new treaty was quickly cast aside after Hollande's election, in favor of simply celebrating the existing treaty.

Merkel and Hollande are meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to celebrate the occasion, their complicated relationship casting a shadow on the event. Merkel and Hollande get along well on a personal level, their aides say. Indeed, the two politicians are more similar than Merkel and Sarkozy were.

Politically, though, there's hardly an issue on which the two leaders agree. Paris doesn't understand why Berlin keeps putting on the brakes in the euro crisis and why Merkel has rejected all proposals to collectivize a portion of the euro zone's debt and instead favors the introduction of new Europe-wide budget controls. Paris disagrees with Germany's proposed approach of tightening belts and decreasing wages.

Differences of Opinion

Emmendingen and Sélestat sometimes have differences of opinion as well, but the issues at stake are not the euro zone or proposed reforms. In fact, Mayor Bauer in Sélestat very much believes there's something to be learned from Germany's liberalization of its job market. Emmendingen's Mayor Schlatterer, meanwhile, feels Germany should strive to emulate France's high birthrate. And with Germany's economy doing so well, more and more parents in Sélestat want their children to start learning German again.

No, the point of contention concerns a different matter entirely, but one that brings to light differing mentalities on either side of the border: Most German towns in the region are fighting to get France to finally decommission its oldest nuclear power plant, located in Fessenheim, about 20 kilometers south of both Sélestat and Emmendingen. In Germany, Merkel plans to take the last nuclear power plant in her country offline by 2022, and residents of Emmendingen aren't keen to see an atomic facility continue operating in their backyard.

Most on the French side of the border, meanwhile, don't understand the Germans' concern, and Mayor Bauer disagrees as well. Residents of these French towns rely on the jobs and tax revenue that the power plant provides. More than anything, though, many people simply see the plant as an unavoidable necessity.

Those on the German side are hopeful that the disagreement will soon be resolved in their favor, after Hollande promised during his election campaign to close the plant in Fessenheim. Mayor Schlatterer from Emmendingen recently wrote the French president to ask where things stood with the planned closure, and Hollande answered that it would happen soon.

Schlatterer is quite satisfied with how Franco-German relations are developing.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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