The Franco-German defence relationship is entering a new phase. As France prepares to rejoin Nato, Douglas Johnson considers a timely survey of this uncertain allianceby Douglas Johnson / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
On wednesday, 29th January, the French national assembly ought to have been debating the abolition of conscription. Instead it discussed an agreement on defence that had been signed by President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Helmut Kohl at Nuremberg ten weeks earlier. No one knew about this until Le Monde leaked the story on 25th January, although the government claimed that it had given instructions that the document should be made available to deputies immediately after it had been signed. Thus, in the words of the former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius, it had taken ten weeks for a document of 20 pages to travel the 500 metres which separate the Elys?e palace from the Palais Bourbon. There was therefore more than idle suspicion that the government had wanted to keep the document secret for as long as possible, the reason being that it recorded a radical change in French defence policy. The latter, in the words of Lionel Jospin, has been “Nato-ised” and France, instead of leading, is being led by Germany.
We are fortunate to have George-Henri Soutou’s study of the French-German alliance to help us to elucidate this controversy which might well become an issue in the run up to the parliamentary elections of 1998. For many years France and Germany had a common enemy and a common security threat. This did not prevent the existence of mutual suspicion; the Germans believed that the French used defence issues as a means of trying to achieve supremacy in Europe, and the French assumed that the Germans were cultivating the support of the US and even, at times, seeking an understanding with Moscow. This period came to an end with the reunification of Germany and the ending of the threat from the Warsaw Pact countries. Since then France has been seeking to reorder its defence arrangements with Germany and thus, in effect, the EU’s defence stance.
The Mitterrand-Kohl initiatives of 1990 and 1991 inaugurate a new period in this alliance, but this does not mean that the preceding years, which form the subject of the greater part of Soutou’s book, are of interest only to military historians. They illustrate the complexities of an alliance in which both parties are, at different times, revealed as confused and devious.
Soutou, who is the international relations expert of Paris-Sorbonne, has used all the available documents. But he is also a historian who does not hesitate to give his personal opinion. This is illustrated by his account of General de Gaulle and the Elys?e treaty of January 1963. The starting point is de Gaulle’s appreciation of the qualities of the German nation. We know that when the general surveyed the ruins of Stalingrad just after the war he said: “What a great people!” His Soviet hosts thought he was talking about them, in fact he was referring to the Germans. Thus, while de Gaulle was ready for a great leap forward in Franco-German relations, he also maintained the traditional French unease about Germany. Even after his meeting with Konrad Adenauer at Colombey in September 1958, he accepted that France’s principal allies were the US and Britain.
Soutou also shows us how, during the presidency of Georges Pompidou, there was very real uncertainty about the nature of the Franco-German alliance and how, at one point, it was possible for France to return to an Atlantic policy. Pompidou did not believe in the defence plans with which the European community was surrounding itself.
For Soutou, de Gaulle’s attempt at European hegemony was a failure. He overestimated his influence, especially with the Soviet Union. But above all, it was Germany’s economy which allowed it to become dominant in Europe. While France was weakened by the events of 1968, Soutou argues, Bonn became the essential partner for Washington and Moscow.
Soutou could not foresee the present economic situation of Germany. But does the Nuremberg agreement of last December fit into his picture? In a sense it does because it shows that Germany is not prepared to abandon the US alliance and US dominance in Nato. It is within this reality that the reorganisation of European defence has to be considered.
The fact is that there has been a long negotiation on nuclear matters between France and Germany and this is now revealed in a document. The document also clearly indicates that France will finally return to Nato, something which has been long foreseen, although President Chirac will now seek justification for this, in a “Europeanisation” of that organisation. l’alliance incertaine: les rapports politico-strategiques franco-allemands 1954-96
Paris: Editions Fayard 1996, FF160