France admires its neighbor, but is wary of German reunification. France and West Germany: 25 years of cooperation

When Francoise Elkouby was growing up in the border town of Strasbourg, she was ashamed because her parents spoke the local German dialect at home. Today, she worries because her children don't speak German. ``Before it was natural to dislike the Germans. Now, I can't imagine what we would do without them,'' explains Mrs. Elkouby, a Strasbourg town official. ``The Germans do their shopping here, they employ thousands of French. We even treat their garbage.''

French ties to West Germany are rooted in the realism that their prosperity and peace depend on maintaining good relations. West Germany is France's largest trading partner, and West German security is crucial to France's security.

But a danger lurks in this close identification. The French often are quicker than are other West Europeans to worry about West Germany. Their worries center on one word: neutralism.

Will West Germany, tempted by some offer of reunification with East Germany, break lose from its Western anchor? A neutral, reunited Germany would threaten France, both because of its enormous economic weight and because of its potential military power.

French fears of German neutralism come and go. The fears now are high. French officials argue that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wants to split the West by tempting West Germany with disarmament agreements and the promise of closer relations with East Germany.

``The German question isn't something we take as armchair theorizing,'' notes one French diplomat. ``There is a strong public opinion within Germany favorable to reunification and neutralism.''

Just as West Germany's national aspirations conflict with French interests, German economic needs also are different. Last year, the French pleaded with the Germans to hold down their interest rates and reflate their economy. Unless West Germany helps out, the French cannot stimulate their own economy without sucking in a flood of German imports and creating a balance of trade problem.

``Germany resembles Japan in many ways, with its strong export sector, its strong savings, and its limited domestic needs because of a declining population,'' notes Georges Valance, an economic analyst at the newsweekly Le Point. ``France, by contrast, looks more like the United States, with its dependence on agricultural and arms exports, its low savings rate, and its balance of trade problems.''

These differences make for inevitable friction, but some French analysts say the tensions are those of growing intimacy, not breakdown.

Polls show the French prefer the Germans to any of their other neighbors - including the British. When the newspaper Le Monde asked Frenchmen what qualities best describe West Germany, more than three-fourths responded ``democratic'' and ``tolerant.'' Only 2 percent described West Germany as ``anti-democratic.''

The Germans are looked upon as a standard by which the French judge their own performance. The Le Monde poll showed that while the French perceive the British as economic failures, they associate the Germans with things they admire: hard-work, competitiveness, creativity.

``The British are insular.... They criticize us all the time,'' says one French diplomat. ``With the Germans we get the feeling that we both are European, that we can work out our problems.''

Worried though they are by some West German policies, the French refuse to turn away from their ally. Instead, they are pushing for increased cooperation.

On the economic front, French Finance Minister Edouard Balladur doesn't want to pull France out of the European Monetary System which ties the franc to the mark. He wants to create a joint central bank which would tie even closer the two countries' monetary and fiscal policy.

Similarly, the French see increased defense cooperation as the best antidote to German neutralism. President Francois Mitterrand has revived the long dormant article on military cooperation in the 1963 treaty as a basis for joint defense initiatives. A French-German brigade and a new French-German defense council will be inaugurated at today's anniversary celebrations at the 'Elys'ee Palace.

In the French view, relations with Germany resemble a good marriage. Squabbles occur. The two partners talk the problems out. Tempers calm, and the relationship resumes as before.

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