The Élysée Treaty - a model for other old enemies

Signing of the Élysée Treaty on 22 January 1963 Signing of the Élysée Treaty on 22 January 1963 (© French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Turning enemies to friends - that was the purpose of the 1963 Élysée Treaty between Germany and France. The agreement is approaching its 50th anniversary, and some say it's a useful model for other historic enemies.

It was a bitterly cold, dark winter's day as French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met in the Élysée Palace in Paris on January 22, 1963. The heads of government and their delegations sat opposite each other in a brightly-lit salon with mirrored doors and gold-ornamented, cream-colored walls. After a few final declarations, Adenauer and de Gaulle signed the agreement that signified German-French cooperation - the Élysée Treaty. It was a highly emotional moment in history.

The two leaders embraced, and de Gaulle kissed Adenauer's cheeks. They both knew that they had shaped the future of German-French relations and accelerated European integration. Adenauer would later express these very hopes at a press conference. "Without this treaty, there would be no European unity," he said - in French. "The methods might change, but the most important thing is never to lose the trust of friends."


The Élysée Treaty, which soon also became known as the Treaty of Friendship, became a decisive milestone in the history of both countries. The rapprochement between Germany and France was a vital step towards turning age-old enemies into the most important partners in Europe. The two countries promised to consult each other on any important foreign, security, youth, and culture policies. They also promised to hold summits at fixed, regular intervals.

The treaty also proved that Europe could live in peace, says Gérard Foussier, publisher of Dokumente, a magazine documenting German-French dialogue. He points out that, as late as the early 1960s, some people were still referring to the two countries as arch-enemies. "It was necessary that at least two of the great peoples of Europe were able to stop talking of their hereditary enmity, and start talking about friendship and cooperation," Foussier told Deutsche Welle.

Model friendship

This development of German-French relations is often considered a model for other historical enemies. This is the subject of Stefan Seidendorf's book "German-French Relations As Model For Peace?" published by the Franco-German Institute (DFI) in Ludwigsburg. The book suggests parts of the treaty that could be transferred to other conflicts and bilateral relations.

One of these is the regular summit, which political representatives at all levels are obliged to participate in. "None of these various representatives are allowed to withdraw from these meetings," Seidendorf told DW. "For that reason it has a particular significance for times of crisis, when some parties would probably rather avoid each other."

There have been plenty of meetings when the two sides had very little, or even nothing at all to say to each other. But at the same time, there have always been opportunities "to acknowledge the position of the other, and the participants are always aware that the press are waiting outside the conference room. Because of this sense of expectation, there is pressure to find compromises and come to an agreement."

Faith in youth

This permanent, contractually-regulated exchange of ideas could well be transferred to other countries locked in conflict, believes Seidendorf. He also sees the social side of the treaty as an excellent example.

To him, de Gaulle and Adenauer were positively visionary in putting so much emphasis on youth. The Élysée Treaty included the establishment of the German French youth organization DFJW, founded on July 5, 1963. It was a very forward-looking project, which made possible thousands of exchanges between young French and German. Since its foundation, the DFJW has given around eight million young people the chance to take part in 300,000 exchange programs.

What is unique about the organization, says Seidendorf, is that it was initially conceived as an international project. "So it included a statute beyond the remit of the national governments, which could not be abolished by either of them," he says. "That means the DFJW was an equal partner, with the same status as the governments, and it could develop this unique program."

Fading blooms and little girls

But the Élysée Treaty almost failed in the first months of its existence. In May 1963, the German Bundestag, which had to ratify the treaty, forced the inclusion of a preamble, strengthening the obligation to create closer ties with the US, Britain and NATO. The French government, however, was hoping that Germany would join it in strengthening Europe's position against the US.

A disappointed de Gaulle is said to have responded to this in private circles with the observation, "Treaties are like roses and little girls - their time is soon over." When de Gaulle made a state visit to Bonn in July 1963, Adenauer reportedly took up the president's metaphor: "Roses and little girls - of course they have their time," the passionate rose breeder said. "But the rose - and I should know - is the most persistent of plants. It lasts through the winter."

De Gaulle, finally persuaded of the strength of the treaty, replied, "A rose only lasts one morning, a girl does not stay young forever. But a rose garden lasts a long time, if you want it to - it survives and blooms. That is the case with the treaty we have signed."

Important experience

There were still plenty of hurdles to overcome and mutual prejudices to dismantle before the Franco-German friendship was as strong as it is today. For that reason, Foussier describes the negotiation as an instructive experience for Germany and France that other countries could learn from. "If we can communicate it well, other regions in the world might say, 'Maybe it's finally time to think about how Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, could also make such progress.'"

© Deutsche Welle

Élysée Treaty at 50

Élysée Treaty at 50

Franco-German Youth Office

(© AA)