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Merkel, Hollande mark crucial de Gaulle speech

3 min

French President François Hollande and his German counterpart Angela Merkel celebrated Saturday the 50th anniversary of a speech by Charles de Gaulle (pictured left) to German youth that marked the beginning of the two countries’ close relationship.


On September 21 1962, French leader Charles de Gaulle opened a new and lasting chapter in French-German relations in an address to young people in Ludwigshafen, south west Germany.

De Gaulle described his country’s former enemy as “a great people”, signalling a profound change of tack after the bitter experience of two devastating world wars.

Charles de Gaulle makes his 1962 address in German (with French voiceover, from 7:08)

The speech set the scene for a lasting reconciliation in language that would have been inconceivable a decade before.

It also set in motion a close relationship that would see France and Germany emerge as the driving economic powers of the modern European Union.

The 71-year-old French president (1959-1969) told the crowd: “I congratulate you ... for being young Germans, which means you are children of a great people.

“That's right, a great people - which has also made some great mistakes in the course of its history.”

The speech – given in measured German and without notes – marked a significant shift in de Gaulle’s own attitude to his country’s former arch enemy.

De Gaulle was the only senior French officer never to accept the terms of the June 1940 armistice following France’s defeat by Nazi Germany.

He also refused to recognise the collaborationist Vichy regime led by ageing General Philippe Pétain, going on to lead the Free French forces which would eventually help liberate the country in the wake of the 1944 Allied invasion of France.

A few months after the 1962 speech, de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysée Treaty – also known as the Friendship Treaty.

A rocky road

France and Germany have been close ever since. On Saturday French President François Hollande and his German counterpart Angela Merkel attended a ceremony in Ludwigshafen to mark the 50th anniversary of de Gaulle’s speech.

Recently, the euro crisis has put France and Germany’s relationship increasingly under the spotlight.

It went through a rocky patch after the May 2012 election defeat of Merkel’s close ally Nicolas Sarkozy – whom she had publicly backed - who shared her vision for finding a way out of the euro crisis.

At the same time, Hollande said in his election campaign that he would not back an EU stability pact unless it had a plan for economic growth, putting Paris at odds with Berlin’s tough austerity approach.

But despite these opposing views, Hollande has nevertheless stressed the importance of the relationship, notably by flying to Berlin as soon as he had been inaugurated as president.

Saturday’s meeting in Ludwigshafen was largely ceremonial, while negotiations between the two countries are hammered out behind closed doors and the big differences that existed in June between the two leaders seem to have abated.

Both Hollande and Merkel praised the relationship, with Hollande telling a mixed crowd of German and French citizens that unity was the only solution to the EU’s current woes.

“The only response to the crisis is Europe, it is Europe that will beat the crisis,” he said, concluding in German: “Long live Franco-German friendship!”

Merkel finished her own speech with a line in French: “Long live Franco-German youth, long live European youth!”

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