The Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO) is sometimes referred to as ‘the most beautiful child of the Élysée Treaty’. Franco-German historian and mediator Joseph Rovan once pointed out that the FGYO had organised the greatest migration of peoples in times of peace. Sixty years after its creation, the FGYO can take pride in having created opportunities for nearly ten million young French and Germans to convene over the course of more than 380,000 programmes. It has also facilitated meetings between young people from France, Germany and other countries in Europe and beyond.
The FGYO, the creation of which was announced by the Elysée Treaty on 22 January 1963, was founded on 5 July 1963. It is an international institution and the first supranational Franco-German organisation ever established. The creation of the OFAJ marks the beginning of the sectoral organisation of bilateral relations. The establishment of this institution, together with its developments – in its structures and its missions alike – reflect the array of challenges it faced and still continues to face. The Office must tailor its objectives to shifting societal challenges, taking new and emerging youth cultures and the specific expectations of young people into account, offering specific programmes in response to economic, social, migration and geopolitical crises, and ensuring greater participation in exchanges on the part of young people with fewer opportunities.
In 1963, France and the Federal Republic of Germany assigned it the mission of ‘strengthening the bonds that unite French and German youth, increasing their mutual understanding and bringing about, encouraging and carrying out meetings and exchanges’. In terms of bilateral youth encounters, the effort did not have to organise from the ground up. The first such meetings had been held on German soil, in the French Occupation Zone, as early as 1946. The French military government in Germany had pursued a cultural policy (‘re-education of the German people’) that was designed chiefly to promote the de-indoctrination and democratisation of German youth. The international opening, and the effort on both sides of the Rhine to overcome stereotypes concerning the ‘hereditary enemy’, were both integral to this policy. A ‘youth and culture’ section of the military government and, later on, of the French High Commission in Germany, had the aim of organising these encounters. It was instrumental in the European Loreley Camp, which in the summer of 1951 brought more than 35,000 young people together on the banks of the Rhine. The torch then passed over to civil-society organisations that had already made a decisive contribution to these first contacts between young people. The intensification of youth encounters was also one of the objectives of the Franco-German cultural agreement of 1954, an agreement that for a variety of reasons bore little fruit.
In late 1959, Adenauer notified General de Gaulle of his desire to multiply these meetings. Two years later, during preparations for official visits by the president and the chancellor to their respective partner countries, Adenauer suggested to the general that an effort should be made to address German youth specifically. De Gaulle’s speech in German to the youth in Ludwigsburg on 9 September 1962 has remained famous: « […] First, I congratulate you for being young; [...] I further congratulate you on being young Germans, which means you are the children of a great nation. […] Finally, I congratulate you for being the youth of today. […] While it remains the task of our two states to promote economic, political and cultural cooperation, it should be up to you and the French youth to encourage you and us to come ever closer together, to get to know each other better and to form closer ties! The future of our two countries, the cornerstone on which Europe’s unity can and must be built, and the highest trump card for the freedom of the world remain mutual respect, trust and friendship between the people of France and Germany’. The next day, the general confided to the chancellor that he wanted to bring a million young Germans to France and send a million young French to Germany. So it comes as no surprise that young people had been given a prominent place in the bilateral cooperation treaty.
In the early 1960s, the young people of French and Germany were no longer those of the period immediately following the war. The new generation – the ‘baby boom’ – was plentiful and had a major role to play in both societies. This was the dawn of the ‘allowance generation’ – a cohort of consumerism and leisure. On the French side, following the end of the war in Algeria, this was the first ‘non-war’ generation; on the German side, it was the first generation of the polarised society – Cold War generations that historian Jean-François Sirinelli deemed more ‘capable of accepting [the] Franco-German rapprochement’. Not only were conditions ripe for a profound shift in the way young people viewed their neighbours, but the weight of this shift enabled the new generation to impose its ‘images of the other’ on its elders. By winning them over to the cause of bilateral reconciliation and cooperation, the FGYO had the opportunity to influence older generations as well.
There were a large number of Franco-German or international youth organisations in the early 1960s, but their funding was limited. These associations had also expressed the wish to see a coordinating body established and expected the two governments to provide more substantial funding for the meetings. The 1963 agreement specified that the FGYO should play a mainly intermediary role, according to the principle of subsidiarity, supporting its partners – namely the organisations involved in exchanges and matters of education, distributing and managing resources and becoming involved itself only in exceptional cases, as an organiser.
The two governments set for the FGYO was to reach not only schoolchildren and students, but also young people entering or already in the workforce (as apprentices, workers, craftsmen, etc.). The transnational exchanges had to be democratised through exposure to settings to which they had hitherto been unavailable – for financial, linguistic and cultural reasons. In its early years, the Office opted for a quantitative approach: By 1967, it had already surpassed its milestone of the first million young people. School exchanges were a leading area of activity for the FGYO at the time, and in an effort to establish contact with the partner, priority was given to general programmes. Despite a considerable budget funded equally by both countries, the FGYO soon fell victim to its own success. This was one of the reasons for the first major reform of the Office in 1973; the other involved the societal changes in 1968/1969, driven mainly by young people. From then on, it became necessary to listen to young people more closely and to respond to their expectations, to move away from reservations about their demands and instead engage in the debate around sensitive political or societal issues, as has been the case in the recent past. The reform carried out in 1973 was a structural revolution that went squarely in the direction of integration: the two original national sections were eliminated and replaced by a single administration under the supervision of a Secretary-General and his or her Deputy. The reorganisation sought not only to limit operating costs for the benefit of the programmes themselves but also to tailor the administrative framework to the programmes. Against the backdrop of the crises of the 1970s, budgetary problems were persistent and limited the activities of the Office. By the end of the decade, 60% of young people over the age of 16 who participated in the programmes were young professionals and apprentices: young workers were the priority of the FGYO at the time. The Office tailored its programmes to address socio-economic challenges (unemployment) and the need for vocational training. Its aim was to promote bilateral solidarity in the labour market in an effort to assist young unemployed people by providing opportunities for professional retraining.
The next decade was a period of growth for the FGYO, with a steep increase in its budget. It faced four challenges at the time: the dawn of new social movements featuring anti-nuclear protests, the environment, movements for peace, leading the Office to update the themes of its encounters; the new characteristics of young people in the 1980s, who were more individualistic but also more politicised; the impact of the increase in youth unemployment in France; and finally, advances in European integration and expansion. Following the modest initial opening of programmes to young people from third countries that began in 1976, European expansion led the FGYO to multiply these programmes to include countries of the Mediterranean perimeter whilst committing to a ‘citizens’ Europe’ and mobility in Europe. The Office also took up the matter of social integration for foreigners and the fight against discrimination against immigrants in both countries. The 1980s were characterised more generally by the introduction of individual programmes, use of the latest developments in educational research in encounters, intensified training programmes for facilitators and collaborators, artistic programmes and augmentation of extracurricular programmes in language instruction.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, followed by German reunification on 3 October 1990, presented an opportunity to illustrate the responsiveness of the FGYO. It opened its programmes to young East Germans, bypassing the controversial agreement that President François Mitterrand had just concluded with the authorities in East Berlin during his trip to the GDR in December 1989. It played a regulatory role between Paris and Bonn at the time. In the months that followed, it made an effort to intensify exchanges with the East and to support the new youth clubs there. By the end of 1990, more than 1,000 young East Germans had taken part in FGYO encounters; by the end of 1991, the figure had climbed to more than 8,000. But the initial enthusiasm proved short-lived. Young French people took a greater interest in their counterparts in the new German Länder than vice versa. By the same token, the enthusiasm for learning French ran out of steam in Eastern Germany beginning in the mid-1990s.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification are part of a broader context of the reshaping of Europe at the end of the Cold War. Once again, the FGYO was there to assist with European expansion. It was provided with a special fund for this purpose. A cooperation arrangement with Poland came early in the process of trilateral cooperation and was referred to as the ‘Weimar Triangle’. Third countries showed an interest in the structure of the institution, and in the work carried out on behalf of reconciliation and cooperation between peoples who had long been torn apart. A German-Polish Youth Office was founded in June 1991, illustrating the ‘transferability’ (adaptability) of the Franco-German experience. Since the dawn of the 2000s, in the wake of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the FGYO has invested in, and continues to invest in, cooperation with the Balkan countries of Europe, with another special fund. In 2016, the Office contributed to the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) for the Western Balkans. On a more occasional basis, the Office continues to organise encounters with participants from countries on other continents.
The process of globalisation has accelerated considerably since the end of the Cold War. At the time, the FGYO observed that the new generation was characterised by individualism, a downturn in traditional political engagement and less sensitivity than previous generations to the specific nature of Franco-German cooperation. In contrast to the ‘generation of reconciliation’, the new generation views Franco-German understanding as a normal state of affairs. Group programmes were dominant into the 1990s, but the FGYO has adapted to the new generation by reintroducing a certain dose of ‘individual programmes’ (the Voltaire and Sauzay programme for school pupils, individual mobility programmes, etc.). It has also given wider latitude to young people’s initiative in many events and has taken advantage of new media.
Due to youth unemployment, which is even higher in France than in Germany, exchanges of young professionals and vocational training are priorities. For example, the FGYO encourages the creation of a ‘jobs network’ by former participants in exchanges. It has also invested in promoting Franco-German volunteerism and the creation of a Franco-German status for trainees.
One of the overarching principles that guides the efforts of the FGYO remains the idea of integration and equality of opportunity. The inclusion of people with disabilities and the fight against discrimination based on origin or sexual orientation are top priorities.
Other priorities still include instruction in the language of the partner country. This aspect remains a highly topical one due to a downturn in the numbers of learners in both countries. The Office invests in pre-school, school and extracurricular learning, testing new methods and taking advantage of the opportunities opened up by new media. With this in mind, it organises ‘Discovery Days’ in schools every 22 January, ever since a ‘Franco-German day’ was established in 2004.
A new Franco-German contract signed in 2005 reformed the FGYO by ‘modernising’ it. Organised around its Board of Governors – a deliberative body – its Steering Committee – an advisory body – and headed by its two Secretaries-General in France and Germany (executive body), the Office is now structured around five thematic bureaus with overarching aims. According to this agreement, ‘the mission of the Franco-German Youth Office shall be to intensify relations between the children, adolescents, young adults and youth leaders in both countries. To this end, it shall help communicate the partner country’s culture, promote intercultural learning, support professional qualification, strengthen joint projects for civic engagement, raise awareness of the special responsibility of Germany and France in Europe, and motivate young people to learn the language of the respective partner country. The FGYO shall serve as a centre of excellence for the governments of both countries. It shall act as an advisor and mediator between the various levels of government and stakeholders in civil society in France and in Germany.’ The FGYO intends to increase its visibility and establish itself as ‘the’ point of reference for Franco-German youth exchanges in Europe. It can now rely on its network of one hundred ‘Young Ambassadors’, created in 2009, and FGYO Info Points. It takes part in major events or trade fairs and is augmenting its digital presence.
Through the Treaty of Aachen, signed on 22 January 2019, the two governments further consolidated its role and augmented its budget to nearly EUR 30 million. It was again entrusted with supervision of the Franco-German Citizen Fund, announced by this treaty and established in April 2020, for the duration of the pilot phase (through the end of 2022).
Thanks to the FGYO’s investment in new technologies, the Office was in a position to carry on with a portion of its encounters online in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns in 2020/21. This made it possible to fight against the isolation that affected young people in particular; the Office developed a ‘2023-2025 Recovery Plan’ as well.
For sixty years, the FGYO has been distinguished by its ability to respond to societal changes and the expectations of young people. Particularly when the Wall came down and during the pandemic, it has demonstrated an ability to act quickly and to suggest innovative solutions. It demonstrated this agility again in welcoming young Ukrainians into its programmes, particularly during the party organized in Berlin for its 60th birthday on 5 July 2023. Over time, it has considerably diversified its programmes to reach ‘young people’ of all ages and categories, individually and collectively, and to promote Franco-German and European mobility for all. Nearly 10 million young people have benefited from its programmes. Beyond the Franco-German realm, the FGYO works to deepen European unification and to solidify young people’s European awareness.