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Europe's odd couple: Giscard and Schmidt

By Elizabeth PondStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1980


Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's press spokesman was asked for an anecdote -- any anecdote -- about Mr. Schmidt and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The spokesman, the man who probably knows his boss better than does anyone else except Mrs. Schmidt, thought for a moment, then for another moment. At last he thought of something.

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"When Giscard visited the chancellor at his house in Hamburg, he took off his coat."

"And his tie?" The questioner later asked another press official, stunning him with the query. "No one," the official declared, "has ever seen Giscard without his tie."

This "anecdote" says worlds about the special relationship that now guides Europe and will be honored in a gala Giscard tour of West Germany July 7 to 11 -- the first French state visit here in 18 years.

The two leaders call each other "Valery" and "Helmut," sometimes. They respect each other's professional expertise. Each admires the other's intelligence and find it a rare match for his own. The normally businesslike Chancellor Schmidt has waxed effusive about their "very deep personal friendship . . . that I believe will last until the end of our lives." But it's still a notable informality when 16e Arrondissement aristocrat Giscard d'Estaing doffs his coat in the home of solid burgher Schmidt.

In their semiannual (at least) tete-a-tetes and frequent phone conversations, the two men talk "between four eyes" as the German saying goes, with no aides or interpreters present. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing understands only a bit of German from his schooldays; Mr. Schmidt jokes that the only French words he can pronounce are Moulin Rouge and amitie (friendship). Their lingua franca is therefore English, a tongue that neatly evades the issue of whether they "tutoyer" or "siezen" each other.

Elaborate French protocol is less simply dispensed with; despite their equivalent political power, President Giscard d'Estaing is head of state, Chancellor Schmidt only head of government. French grace (and the absence of the figurehead West German president at political summits) come to the rescue, however.

The West Germans in Mr. Schmidt's party are allowed to enjoy, rather than be embarrassed, by the elegance of Elysee ceremonies. When Monsieur le President and Monsieur le Chancelier are announced with a flourish and make their joint appearances for mousse de coquilles St. Jacques, no one in the glittering dining room can reasonably doubt that his particular odd couple were made for each other.

Actually, the romance started a generation ago. West German founding father Konrad Adenauer wanted to anchor his new nation in the West. Free French hero Charles de Gaulle wanted to anchor the new German nation in a friendly but subordinate position. And both giants yearned to eradicate the centuries-old French-German hostility.

The deliberate Franco-German rapproachement in the face of history was, in the words of a contemporary, a "Copernican change."

The initial gestures were easy. Charles De Gaulle made a triumphal tour of West Germany, to the cheers of millions, in 1962. The friendship and cooperation treaty was solemnized in 1963. Youth exchanges, city twinnings, and efforts to edit hatred out of the history books proceeded apace.

Within a scant two years, however, the incompatibility between the acerbically Cartesian French and the excruciatingly sincere Germans began to show. Their very different traditions, administrations, languages, social experience, and histories of statehood reasserted themselves. The French rural and social backwater could not keep up with the West German industrial dynamo.