Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sour Krauts?

There is an intriguing piece on the Deutsche Welle website about the erosion of the Franco-German relationship.

Entitled, "When Love Across Borders Fades", it seems that it is not only political relations that are under stress. More worrying, says Deutsche Welle, is that the people of France and Germany also seem to be drawing not closer together but further apart.

This is despite superficial appearances. For instance, every year, 200,000 young people are ferried from France to Germany and from Germany to France on exchange programs run by the Franco-German Youth Office. France is the biggest market for German goods and vice versa. Even the head of Airbus is German. The Franco-German relationship seems a model of European integration.

But, deeper down, things are not so good. The problem, says Paris-based political scientist Hans Stark, is French "ennui". The French are less interested in Germany, Stark says. "That's because they are not scared about Germany any more. German theatre, German literature, German classical music is less attractive for a broad spectrum of society. So, for them, Germany is a country which is very, very far away."

A further measure of the widening distance between the two peoples is the falling popularity of the German language in France. This spring a rather desperate television advertisement trying to lure the French to learn Deutsch - featuring pink Birkenstock sandals, kinky lederhosen and a beautiful, blond German teacher -- illustrated that the German language is in a crisis in France.
Indeed, German is hardly heard on the streets in France, except maybe among tourists in Paris.

A recent report commissioned by the French government showed that in just five years, the percentage of French children learning German in state schools had dropped from 30 to 10 percent. According to the report's Franco-German author Heinz Wismann, German is fast becoming like Latin - dead for all but a tiny elite.

"We have more and more private schools where people from the higher classes of society send their children," says Wismann. "And there, they learn German, they learn Latin. Greek and Latin and German - it's become the secret sign of belonging to the higher classes in France."

Deutsche Welle adds to this tale of woe with a story about German food which I had not heard before. Not only is the German language becoming such a rarity in France - German food hardly has any takers any more. Gerhard Weber, the head chef at the Stubli, Paris's one and only German restaurant, uses traditional German ingredients to make a new German cuisine. But, he says, French attitudes haven't much changed since Napoleon's first encounter with black German bread.

"When Napoleon arrived in Germany he asked people 'bread?' so they give him black bread," said Weber. "Napoleon looked at the black bread and said "that's bon pour Nickel" because his horse was called Nickel. Germans understand 'bon pour Nickel'... pumpernickel. So today the black bread's called pumpernickel."

After all these years, says Weber the French still harbour these stereotypes when it comes to German food. "They think German food is too fat... only sauerkraut, sausage - and it's all heavy." Heavy or 'lourd' is an often used pejorative term in French meaning clumsy, slow, boring and stupid. Light or 'léger', on the other hand, means subtle, quick, witty and bright. The idea that French is 'léger' and German is 'lourd' seems to be deeply ingrained in the French psyche. This hauteur, it seems, also runs to German literature, where the French are largely oblivious to developments in the German literary world.

For whatever reason, the French are closing themselves off to German culture and ignorance about Germany is on the rise. Statistics compiled by the French foreign ministry on the number of its nationals who have gone to live abroad show that there are now nearly three times more French people living in Britain than in Germany. That is despite the much stronger business links between Germany and France.

No matter, therefore, how many German washing machines the French buy and treaties they sign or how many government initiatives push them towards their bigger neighbour, concludes Deutsche Welle, Germany is slipping from the French national consciousness.

Actually, I think it goes both ways. Staying in Strasbourg, on the Franco-German border, it really is amazing how few people venture across the border into Germany and, as we know from recent experience, when German taxi drivers venture into France, they get an extremely hostile reaction.

But what struck me, when we did venture over the border into Germany, was how German it was. While in Strasbourg, there are obvious German influences, a few miles over the Rhine and you could have been anywhere in Germany. There was not a hint of cultural mixing.

What the DW piece seems to do, therefore, is confirm personal experience: while the French and Germans are quite happy to live peaceably alongside each other, they do not really share the enthusiasm of their political masters for integration. Or, as the French might have said, vive la différence.

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