France and Germany: Europe's odd couple
THERE are ``irreducible differences'' between the French and American commitment to European defense, says Dominique David, secretary-general of the Foundation for National Defense Studies in Paris. ``France takes risks at home. The US takes risks in Europe - in its own interest, but not on its own territory.'' The United States can therefore decide to opt out, he concludes; France cannot.Skip to next paragraph
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Going on to describe the French-West German cooperation that Paris cannot opt out of, he says, ``The majority of French public opinion today thinks that French arms should help Germany if it is attacked. ... I think we made a lot of progress since '80, '81, '82 - progress more political than military. Today it is possible in France to say things about Germany and the alliance which could not have been said 20 years ago [when Paris withdrew from NATO's integrated military command]. There has been an important evolution in the political class and public opinion, and in Germany too there has been an evolution.''
Karl Kaiser, director of studies at the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) in Bonn and co-publisher of a new book on French-West German security coordination, would not disagree with this assessment. But he stresses the limitations and sees the bilateral relationship as ``a case of unrequited love - on both sides.''
Both views are valid. Once again the odd couple of France and West Germany are being pushed together, by their fears of American disengagement from Europe. Once again they are encountering some ``irreducible differences'' of their own. But however troubled, the security partnership between two nations that for a century and a half were arch enemies is already one of the great achievements of the 20th century.
That partnership, as Mr. David suggests, is as much psychological as military. That makes it especially tricky for observers to sort out substance from image - and also makes it deceptively easy to belittle the substance that the deliberate image itself creates. An American diplomat describes the approach of President Francois Mitterrand thus: ``The thing that is important is not the military reality, but the political symbol. That becomes reality.''
The latest bilateral flurry is a case in point. Alfred Dregger is chairman of the West German conservative parliamentary group, a longtime supporter of the US, and, until recently, a fan of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars''). Last month Mr. Dregger recoiled from US pressures on Bonn to endorse superpower arms control by calling for a security union between Paris and Bonn, with French nuclear weapons pledged to defend West Germany.
Three years ago ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had similarly proposed integrating the French and West German armed forces under a French commander, but in 1984 the time was not yet ripe. By this year, however, it was an idea whose time had almost come. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius declared himself in favor of a ``type of German-French confederation'' in which Bonn would take the lead in economics and Paris would take the lead in defense and foreign policy - and might actually extend that sacrosanct nuclear protection to West Germany.
CHANCELLOR HELMUT KOHL, in what some Bonn observers regarded as a splashy initiative to undercut Dregger's radical proposal, immediately broached the more modest idea of forming a joint French-West German brigade. President Mitterrand in turn immediately suggested that such a unit could form the ``embryo of a European conventional defense.''
The military technocrats grumbled about the problems of issuing orders in English, but started groping for ingenious ways to build a single unit whose German soldiers would be subject to NATO command and whose French members most emphatically would not.