Europe's odd couple: Giscard and Schmidt

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.

"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.

The recurring policy conflicts -- West German Atlanticism vs. French Europeanism, West German industry vs. French agriculture, President Georges Pompidou's fears that Chancellor Willy Brandt was turning neutralist -- were the natural outcome of the mismatched temperaments. The frictions were still rankling in the early '70s when the cool and confident Helmut Schmidt became West German finance minister and the cool and confident Valery Giscard d'Estaing became French finance minister.

The two finance ministers got along splendidly, however. They liked each other's no-nonsense fiscal and economic policies. They liked each other's indisposition to suffer fools around them. They like each other's abhorrence of a weak franc.

The Schmidt-Giscard romance blossomed, then, when both men unexpectedly became their countries' top political leaders in May of 1974. By now West Germany had regained much of its cultural self-confidence. And France had modernized to an unimaginable degree in its own economic (and social) miracle. France's GNP already exceeded Britain's and was three-fourths of West Germany's. The French and West German GNP accounted for more than half of the European Community (EC) total, and French-West German trade accounted for one-fifth of both countries' exports.

The pragmatic conservative Giscard d'Estaing edged away from the obsessive chauvinism of Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou. The pragmatic Social Democratic Schmidt edged away from the visionary socialism of Willy Brandt. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, to the gratification of the West Germans, was ready to sacrifice the sacred cow of French dirigismem and (to a lesser extent) protectionism. Mr. Schmidt, to the mixed feelings of the French, was ready to challenge the maxim that West Germany must remain a political dwarf.

These shifts were mutually reinforcing. Chancellor Schmidt conferred on Mr. Giscard d'Estaing the solidity and stability of Europe's strongest economy and army. President Giscard d'Estaing conferred on Mr. Schmidt legitimacy and elegance -- and diluted third-country resentment of the powerful Teutons by broadening West German initiatives into French-West German initiatives.

The French stopped mocking the West Germans for being better Americans than Europeans, and themselves returned to cooperation with (if not full membership in) NATO. They stopped worrying so much that the two Germanies might actually be reunified some day.

Furthermore, with the Hanns-Martin Schleyer kidnapping in West Germany in 1977 and the dumping of Mr. Schleyer's body over the French border, the French quietly dropped their conceit that West German terrorists and sympathizers were political refugees; Paris began extraditing suspects to Bonn.

Even more remarkably, perhaps, after the Schleyer affair and the accompanying French alarms about West German repression, the French daily Le Monde and other journals searched their souls and drastically revised their stereotypes. They stopped seeing Nazi jackboots under every West German bed. ("Today's Germany is much more democratic -- oh yes! -- than France," proclaimed L'Express.)

For their part the West Germans stopped fighting France's beloved EC agricultural subsidies as they found West German farmers clamoring for them, too. And the West Germans also repressed their awareness of their own competence and success sufficiently to listen to the French and not just lecture them.

Concretely, Chancellor Schmidt and President Giscard d'Estaing encouraged joint French-German aerospace and arms production, as well as joint nuclear reactor development: inaugurated regular EC summits that took Europe's political direction away from the supranational bureuacracy and gave it to the elected government leaders: proposed what would become the big seven economic summits; and launched -- in exasperation over US failure to stabilize the dollar -- the European Monetary System joint float.

The personal-professional chumminess in all of these initiatives has had certain built-in hazards, of course. The smaller EC nations have always been skittish about any West German-French bureaucracies have sometimes been confused about what their leaders actually want, given the absence of notetaking in conversations a deux, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's poorer command of English than Mr. Schmidt's (and the French President's reluctance to admit any misunderstanding), and the leaders' habit of minimizing bureaucractic Sabotage by minimizing the bureaucrats' knowledge about new initiatives.

By and large, however, the joint French-West German leadership of Europe has worked better than anyone anticipated. The special French-West German relationship has weathered contrary pulls on Afghan and Mideast policies as well as Britain's contribution to the EC surprisingly well.

In each case Bonn has softened Paris's go-it-alone proclivities -- but has done so without the public rows that have marred French-American and FRench-British relations. Even Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's sly slipping off to Warsaw to see Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev without informing his good friend Helmut Schmidt until a few hours before departure has been passed over with a sigh as something of a lovers' spat. The real test of the French-German marriage will come only next year, after Messrs. Schmidt and Giscard (presumably) have both been re-elected. The the crucible of French-West German cooperation will be reform of the EC.

Chancellor Schmidt intends to cut the exorbitant 70 percent of the EC budget that now subsidizes farm surpluses and that West Germany bankrolls. Mr. Schmidt also intends to welcome Spain and Portugal into the EC soon, whatever the economic cost, to strengthen these infant democracies.

President Giscard d'Estaing, who was ready to kick Britain out of the EC until West Germany snatched a compromise out of disaster last May, is not eager to reduce subsidies or to bring low-income Spanish and Portuguese farmers into competition with French farmer-voters.

Still, West German officials are hopeful that reasonable solutions can be worked out, without splitting France and West Germany. So far the broader visions have prevailed in the new French-West German relationship.

Both sides have viewed their cooperation, one West German diplomat suggests, not only as a means of bilateral advancement, but also a stewardship for Europe. Messrs. Schmidt and Giscard have developed a habit of coordination and personal political stakes in good relations. And if they sometimes overstate their friendship, this, too, is a hedge against any reversion to the all-too-easy French-German recriminations of the past.

In this context the combined state visit and 36th bilateral ministerial consultations with which Mr. Giscard d'Estaing is building up to Bastile Day (July 4) are far more than a pretty ceremony. President Giscard d'Estaing is making a strong political statement as he dines in the jewel-like Falkenlust Schloss, signs the golden book of Kassel, reviews the French troops in Baden-Baden -- and doesn't take of his tie in Bonn.

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