Saturday, July 21, 2012

WWI and Franco-German ties in 2012

REIMS, France: France and Germany marked 50 years of reconciliation on Sunday but the vandalism of German war graves cast a shadow as their leaders sought more unity to tackle the euro debt crisis.

The desecration of the graves of 51 German soldiers killed during World War I came on the eve of the highly symbolic meeting in Reims in northern France, a region scarred by centuries of war with Germany.

French President Francois Hollande immediately launched into damage control telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others gathered in the cathedral at Rheims that "no obscure force and even less stupidity can alter the deep Franco-German friendship.

"Our friendship inspires Europe," he said. "We don't want to preach. We just want to give examples to be followed.

"Madam Chancellor, I propose from our side to open and even cross a new door together that will lead to even closer friendship between our two nations."

The two leaders reviewed troops from their countries, exchanged kisses on the cheeks in greeting, and called each other "dear" Angela and Francois in stark contrast to earlier more formal, and even frosty, meetings.

The main event at Rheims cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site extensively damaged by German bombing during World War I, was attended by a hundreds-strong cheering crowd.

Merkel's message was more direct.

"Europe is more than just a currency, and the Franco-German relationship is vital in this regard, it has deeply marked European unification," she said.

At the same time she stressed that others were welcome to join in, echoing Hollande who is seeking closer ties with Italy and Spain.

"We must now put finishing touches on a political level of the economic and monetary union, it's a Herculean task but Europe is up to it," she said, ending her speech with "Long live Franco-German friendship" in both languages.

They also unveiled a plaque in German commemorating the "Mass for peace" before visiting an exhibition in the nearby Tau palace.

Hollande, speaking to reporters after the ceremony, rejected the need for a super "Mr Euro" with beefed up powers, saying: "We are mobilised to preserve, nurture and strengthen the euro.

"We will have a good solution once Mr Juncker ends his mandate, a Franco-German solution," he said, referring to Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker who has steered the Eurogroup since 2005. His current term ends on July 17.

The Franco-German post-war reconciliation was symbolically achieved in 1962 by then French president Charles de Gaulle and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

The eurozone's two top economies have worked closely in recent years as they scramble to solve the debt crisis hammering the single currency. Eurozone finance ministers will meet Monday in Brussels to build on measures agreed last month to tame the debt crisis.

Observers are watching to see how the relationship develops between the new French president, a centre-left advocate of growth, and Merkel, a centre-right defender of austerity.

The two have locked horns on resolving the crisis with Hollande advocating more spending to boost growth - a position winning over more adherents in Europe - while Merkel touts serious belt-tightening and more fiscal control.

Hollande told reporters that the relationship was developing well.

"Even though we belong to different political traditions, Mrs Merkel and I share the same values with regard to the EU," he said. "Our relations are good and there's no need to try to too hard."

On the eve of the watershed event, the graves of 51 World War I German soldiers were found desecrated at a military cemetery some 40 kilometres east of Reims.

A local prosecutor said the grave markers had probably been kicked out at the Saint-Etienne-a-Arnes cemetery, which contains the graves of some 12,000 World War I soldiers - the majority of them German.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls strongly condemned the vandalism saying: "An enquiry is under way and all means are being employed to find those responsible for this terrible desecration."

According to initial information, the wooden crosses had been pulled up and some used for a camp fire. Several beer bottles were found nearby.

It was not immediately possible to say whether this was a "determined action" or just the work of "irresponsible people", a spokesman at the local prefecture said, adding there were no signs of any political message.

Reims was occupied by the Prussians in 1870, devastated by bombings during World War I, and was the city where on May 7, 1945, US general Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht.

No comments: