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France and Germany: Europe's odd couple

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THERE are ``irreducible differences'' between the French and American commitment to European defense, says Dominique David, secretary-general of the Foundation for National Defense Studies in Paris. ``France takes risks at home. The US takes risks in Europe - in its own interest, but not on its own territory.'' The United States can therefore decide to opt out, he concludes; France cannot.

Going on to describe the French-West German cooperation that Paris cannot opt out of, he says, ``The majority of French public opinion today thinks that French arms should help Germany if it is attacked. ... I think we made a lot of progress since '80, '81, '82 - progress more political than military. Today it is possible in France to say things about Germany and the alliance which could not have been said 20 years ago [when Paris withdrew from NATO's integrated military command]. There has been an important evolution in the political class and public opinion, and in Germany too there has been an evolution.''

Karl Kaiser, director of studies at the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) in Bonn and co-publisher of a new book on French-West German security coordination, would not disagree with this assessment. But he stresses the limitations and sees the bilateral relationship as ``a case of unrequited love - on both sides.''

Both views are valid. Once again the odd couple of France and West Germany are being pushed together, by their fears of American disengagement from Europe. Once again they are encountering some ``irreducible differences'' of their own. But however troubled, the security partnership between two nations that for a century and a half were arch enemies is already one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

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