Today, the Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation signed at Elysée Palace on 22 January 1963 by President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer is the symbol of Franco-German reconciliation. The rapprochement between the two countries did not begin with this treaty, however. It could not have been signed if not for the fact that the groundwork for an agreement between the governments and societies had been laid over the preceding years. Examples of these previous efforts include the Schuman Plan of 1950, the first town-twinning arrangements dating back to the early 1950s, as well as the two visits by Adenauer and de Gaulle to France and West Germany, in July and September 1962, respectively, through which they ensured both societies’ support for this rapprochement. 

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The treaty was preceded by a joint declaration containing the only mention of the term ‘reconciliation’, ‘a historic event which profoundly transforms the relations of the two peoples’. The first part of the treaty – entitled ‘Organisation’ (I.) – establishes regular consultations between the heads of state or government and their ministers. This organisational framework is completed by the ‘Programme’ section (II.). In the field of Foreign Affairs (II.A.), before any important decision is taken, it is necessary to ‘reach ... as far as possible, an analogous position’. Under the heading of Defence (II.B.), the two countries agree to endeavour ‘mutually to approximate their doctrines with a view to reaching common concepts’. Finally, the two parties specify the outlines of their cooperation on behalf of Education and Youth (II.C.) in an effort to intensify instruction of the partner country’s language and to promote scientific and academic relations. The treaty also announces the foundation of a Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO). The FGYO was created on 5 July 1963, on the occasion of the first Franco-German summit in Bonn. As education issues fall within the competence of the Länder, the post of Minister Plenipotentiary for Franco-German Cultural Cooperation has been created – a post occupied by a Minister-President of one of the German Länder – who serves as the partner to the French Minister of Education.

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The scope of the treaty does not include economic cooperation. From that time, however, there was a dense network of contacts in place between economic stakeholders from both countries. This was mentioned only in passing, however, so as not to encroach on the domain of the European communities (the Treaties of Rome having been signed in 1957). Culture is not included in the treaty, either – beyond the FGYO’s efforts relating to education and young people. In the Federal Republic of Germany, these matters fell under the purview of the Länder, but on the part of the French in particular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – which was in competition with the new Ministry of Culture – did not want to let minister and author André Malraux take the reins of France’s cultural relations with Germany.

In terms of its legal form, this treaty was very largely improvised. The two governments had originally intended to sign a memorandum, but in order to avoid a challenge from the Länder in charge of education, it was necessary to make it a treaty, which involved debate and ratification by both parliaments. In June 1963, after heated exchanges, the Bundestag compelled the addition of a preamble stating that this cooperation with France did not call into question either the relationship with the United States of America – and specifically the involvement of the Federal Republic of Germany in NATO – or the existing European communities (the Europe of the Six). De Gaulle reacted with bitterness, claiming that the treaty would now be devoid of meaning. Although the following decade was marked by Franco-German political tensions – between the successors of Adenauer on the one hand and of de Gaulle and then Pompidou on the other – societal relations, including youth meetings and town twinning, intensified considerably. Since the mid-1970s, the treaty has become the framework creating the conditions for advancing the work of understanding and bilateral partnership. Beginning with its 20th anniversary, the symbolism of the Élysée Treaty has been regularly highlighted, with Franco-German ‘reconciliation’ emerging as a key element of bilateral discourse.

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Admittedly – and continuing through to this day – Paris and Bonn or Berlin have not always held shared positions on foreign and defence policy; and even where education is concerned, not all objectives have been achieved. But the strength of the treaty lies in the organisation of consultations, which were further systematised later on, and in the multidimensional activities conducted with respect to young people. Of course, a half-century after its signing, and faced with the new challenges of society, the treaty needed an update, and the Aachen Treaty of January 2019 is often referred to as the ‘Elysée Treaty 2.0’.