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France and Germany mark era of reconciliation

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French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a press conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty. Photo: Bertrand Langlois / AFP
18:09 CET+01:00
French President Francois Hollande headed to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to kick off events marking 50 years since the two countries inked a treaty sealing their post-war reconciliation.

Throughout a packed pomp-filled agenda of symbolic and business get-togethers which continue through Tuesday, Europe's power couple will seek to mask tensions that have strained Franco-German efforts to battle the euro crisis.

The celebrations to mark the signing on January 22, 1963 of the Elysee Treaty which formalised the former foes' friendship after the end of World War II will start with a working dinner in the snow-bedecked German capital and a meeting with youngsters.

Both governments will convene on Tuesday at the chancellery and lawmakers from the French National Assembly will hold a debate with their Bundestag counterparts in the Reichstag parliament building.

Merkel acknowledged differences with France in her weekly podcast Saturday but said she felt "a very great proximity" with Germany's neighbour, adding: "And when we have come together, then mostly a good new solution has come out of it."

"Strained relations have been overblown"

After Merkel spearheaded much of Europe's response to the three-year-long debt crisis with Hollande's conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, earning them the nickname 'Merkozy', her rapport with the Socialist is noticeably cooler.

The pair have differed on the best approach for stemming the eurozone turbulence - with Hollande pushing for measures to bolster growth, while Merkel's pro-austerity mantra made her a figure of hate in struggling EU member states but has gone down well among German voters.

But Philippe Marliere, a professor in French and European Politics at University College London believes any rows between the two have been overplayed by the media.

"If relations were strained then it would have been just after Hollande came to power, when he said he was going to tear up Europe's austerity bill," Marliere told The Local. "But it's been accepted by everyone and Hollande did not get what he wanted.

"More and more you can see that Hollande is continuing what Sarkozy did. There is no major reason for these two heads of state to be at odds with other."

Even if the two have pulled off compromises, Germany, which has fared far better in the crisis than many of its partners, has not hidden concern over the health of the French economy, which the French central bank estimates fell into a mild recession at the end of 2012.

The two now appear to have agreed on Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem to replace Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the Eurogroup after weeks of horse-trading.

"Germany no longer wants to be a big power"

Europe's driving force has limited cooperation on military matters too, as the Mali conflict and Germany's non-intervention in Libya in 2011 showed, and they have traditionally different approaches to intervention shaped by their respective histories.

"In foreign policy Germany no longer wants to be a big power. How could we be, after Hitler and Auschwitz?" German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in Monday's Handelsblatt business daily.

"We are not refusing to take responsibility but we have a different relationship with military power," he said.

While French troops are fighting alongside Malian forces against Islamist fighters in the west African state, Germany has pledged two military transport planes and one million euros ($1.3 million) in humanitarian aid.

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In signing the landmark treaty half a century ago, former French president Charles de Gaulle and ex-West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer opened a new chapter in cooperation that has since driven European unity.

Former EU Commission chief Jacques Delors told news weekly Der Spiegel that the symbolic value of the accord was "much more important" than its concrete implementation and that the regular meetings between their leaders and officials were of "inestimable" value.

"Both sides must speak to each other, also in difficult times," he said.

Looking ahead, Merkel also called in her podcast for German to be learnt in France and vice versa while admitting it was not an easy feat due to English being the dominant world language.

Having grown up in former East Germany she learned Russian and English, while Hollande's knowledge of German is basic.

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