France, Germany celebrate 50 years of landmark Elysee Treaty

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, which promoted reconciliation and partnership. But they're also looking to the future.

Treaty promotes reconciliation, partnership between the two countries

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande toast during a private dinner in a restaurant in Berlin marking 50 years since the signing of the Elysee Treaty, a post-war friendship pact. (Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung/Associated Press )

French President François Hollande is in Berlin to celebrate the signing of the Élysée Treaty 50 years ago, but he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are not just marking the past – they’re looking forward.

"We have to give Europe confidence in the its future," Hollande said at a news conference after the French and German cabinets held a joint meeting. "We will try to be as concrete as possible … so that growth can be reinforced and stability guaranteed." 

Merkel agreed, adding, "We are aware of our great responsibility to improve the situation in the European Union, overcome the euro crisis and make possible economic growth … and so make workable for the future the tried and tested model of European life, linking competiveness and economic strength with economic cohesion."

A focal point was the joint session of the German Bundestag and the French National Assembly held in the Reichstag Tuesday. Both Hollande and Merkel gave speeches.

"People do care at the moment because it’s important that Germany and France work together and find solutions to the euro crisis but also the situation in Mali," said Judith Winkler, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin.

"(The Élysée Treaty) has institutionalized relations. It has made Germany and France be in political contact. Even when perhaps they wouldn’t have wanted to talk about certain things, this contract has made them. It’s been a good thing on the political level and on the civil society level."

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Follow Karen on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and General Charles de Gaulle signed the Treaty for Franco-German Co-operation on Jan. 22, 1963, 20 years after Nazis occupied France.

The two leaders believed their countries could not be brought together by politics and treaties alone – they wanted it to be a part of ordinary people’s everyday life. 

Student involvement is one of the concrete ways the Treaty has deepened the relationship between the two countries. On Monday night, 100 students from a youth parliament organized by the Franco-German Youth Office were part of a 90-minute question-and-answer session with Merkel and Hollande.

They asked questions ranging from education and employment to energy politics and the developing conflict in Mali.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande meet German and French students, trainees and young workers to mark the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty. (Kay Nietfeld/Associated Press )

"It was a lifetime experience. They are president and chancellor but it was their vision and our vision," said Clémence Maulat, a second-year law student in Toulouse, France.

Maulat asked a question about how to build a stronger Europe while not excluding other countries.

"My question was really, really large so the answer was also really, really large and not explicit. But it was a good beginning for the discussion and allowed us to talk about culture and inter-cultural experiences," she said later.

Maulet decided to participate in this youth parliament because, as a human rights lawyer, she wants to learn how to put these lessons to use in conflicts involving other countries.

"We had these huge walls that included the whole world and this happened mostly because we didn’t understand each other," she explained.

"Other countries can learn from that, like for example, [the] Palestine and Israel conflict. We make it work through education, politics and culture. That can be an example, not a model because you can’t just copy and paste but actually an influence."

Yannic Glowitz, who is studying media, communications and political science at the Free University in Berlin, said the session with Merkel and Hollande seemed to remind the politicians about who is at the end of their decisions.

"Sometimes they’re discussing in Brussels, hard decisions to make and today they could see it’s us touched by these decisions and influenced. They could see our faces and there was a girl telling us she was jobless at the moment, so they could see these decisions are not just theoretical," he said.

"It’s cliché to say we are the future of Europe but we could recognize and see it’s us who will be deciding in the next decades. The conflict in Mali shows we have a responsibility and we have to decide if we want to work together and in which way."

Yannic Glowitz and Clemence Maulat, participating in the Franco-German Youth Office parliament, toast the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty (Karen Pauls/CBC )

As expected, the issue of Mali came up, but the two leaders brushed aside any suggestion of differences. France began taking an active role last week in an attempt to prevent Islamist militants in the northern part of the country from moving south.

Germany is sending two Bundeswehr Transall aircraft to fly soldiers into Mali. It will also participate in a European Union mission to help train the Malian military.

Merkel said their defence ministers are in close contact, but made no new commitments.

Germany has no desire to become involved in a messy conflict with no clear end in sight, but it is eager to prove it is a reliable partner, especially after staying out of Libya, Winkler said.

"There’s no open conflict that we’re hearing about where France would be demanding Germany send soldiers as well, but how it develops depends on how the situation in Mali develops," she said.

"Germany doesn’t like getting involved in military conflict and sending soldiers, which has a strong support in the population, so there are political reasons of what it could do in the elections."

There have also been concerns about some of their other differences. Hollande has criticized Germany's commitment to austerity measures, while Merkel has resisted the idea of pooling countries' debt.

On Tuesday, they laughed away questions about their relationship.

"Our best-kept secret is that the chemistry is right," Merkel said. "What isn't easy is convincing you," Hollande told reporters.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hug each other after Merkel's speech at a reception of the German federal parliament, Bundestag. (Steffi Loos/Associated Press )