When the president of France and the chancellor of West Germany together paid homage in this ancident border city this week, to the remains of Charlemagne, the last emperior of the French and Germans, it was really the consecration of a political alliance that has emerged as the dominant force in Western Europe.
This renewed Franco-German closeness, manifested by the personal friendship between President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, is widely viewed by experienced officials as potentially the most important political development in Western Europe in the last decade.
Less dramatic than the spectacular French-German reconciliation staged by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer 15 years ago, the Giscard Schmidt connection nevertheless seems to be closer, more durable and to represent a real potential power bloc in global terms.
As Western Europe's two most powerful nations, France and West Germany in tandem have a decisive influence in determining the direction and speed of European political and economic integration. Combined, this might well go a long way in shaping the Europe that emerges into the 21st century and fixing its rank in the world pecking order.
Aside from sharing similar attitudes on the future of the West and leading the two most stable countries on the continent, Giscard and Schmidt also have been drawn together, their top aides acknowledge, by shared uncertainty about U.S. leadership and intentions. They also share disappointment over Britains seeming inability to play a larger role. Around them, they also see countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal whose stability remains a question mark.
Though officials on both sides cringe at public suggestions of a Bonn Paris axis, that is what seems to be developing in Western Europe.
The most dramatic current example is the Franco-German effort here to hammer out a common position on 2 new monetary union for Western Europe and then seek support for this in neighboring countries. The weight of their alliance is such that the pressure on the rest of the nine-nation European Economic Community to go along may prove irresistible. That is a touchy business for the other countries, but a French diplomat here says: "We discuss European questions between ourselves. The purpose is not to dictate to the other, but it is good that France and Germany should agree. The effect is to pull everyone else long."
For West Germany, the deepening ties with France and the French leader are particularly important.
The Germans are Europes dominant economic power and the strongest European military force within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet two world wars in this century have made postwar German leaders reluctant to raise their heads too high or appear too forceful in European politics. That is less of a constraint for Schmidt than for his predecessors, but the meetings of the minds on key issues with Giscard gives the Germans a valued partner and makes Schmidt more comfortable.
It also gives the cause for European intergration - sometimes which has lain dormant for many years - an unexpected boost.
Aside from the proposed monetary union, the two leaders have pressed hard for two other key European developments. One is direct election to a European parliament, now set for June. The other is expansion of the Common Market to include Greece, Portugal and Spain.
The fact that Schmidt is now serving as Common Market president and will be succeeded by Giscard in January for the next six-month term has turned out to be convenient for sustaining the integration effort at a key time.
"The wellbeing of Western Europe very much depends on the French-German relationship," says a senior German official. "There is no relevant group in Germany that would oppose it. It is not just political slogans or theatrics. Now, practically every major decision we make here in Bonn we first discuss with the French.
"Anti-German feeling is a thing of the past in France these days," a senior French diplomat said here. "Bad memories of the war are much stronger now in Britain and Holland than in France. When the French Communists try to stir up old anti-German hatred, they don't get anywhere."
The term most frequently used in Bonn these days to describe Giscard is "relaxed."
"They have great esteem for each other," said a French official of the two leaders. They have confidence in each other's intellect." Giscards relaxed attitude has help in his dealings with Schmidt, who often is moody and impatient. Giscard has kept his advice to the chancellor private, knowing Schmidt does not like getting advice in public.
The two speak frequently by phone, usually in English, though they understand each other's language. Previous French leaders have insisted on speaking French.
Paradoxically, the Giscard-Schmidt working relationship seems almost too close in the view of some working diplomats. Some complain that too many things are settled in phone conversations between the two men and that diplomats are too often unaware of the agreements and find themselves working in the dark.
Less than a year ago, the Germans could see nothing but growing chaos around them in Western Europe. Giscard's stunning victory over the Socialist-Communist electoral alliance in France last March changed all that. It turned France into West Germany's reliable rear area.
If anything, barring accidents, Giscard's situation look more assured than Schmidt's. His presidential term has three more years to run, and his re-election to a seven-year term would mean 20 more years of uninterrupted leadership in France.
For the Germans, Giscard is far more reassuring than De Gaulle was. De Gaulle's basic technique was the blackmail of a threat to reverse France's traditional alliances. The Germans had to tell the French then not to force them to choose between France and America because they would always have to choose America.
By contrast, Giscard has made a point of establishing good relations with botht the United States and West Germany.
"Giscard has learned how to use the power of others" to increase France's own weight in the world, said a major Western ambassador.
The Giscardist election victory was met with massive relief in Bonn. The general view in the German capital is that a French leftist victory would have isolated West Germany even more as a conservative force in Europe, and that this might have been enough to tip over Schmidt's center-left coalition in the next Germany elections.
"Giscard has a much clearer concept of the vital elements of our relationship," said a senior German official. "His policy is to avoid unnecessary friction and not to confront the U.S. That has eliminated a major problem for us."
Although Giscard publicly follows official Gaullist doctrine that France behind-the-scenes cooperation in NATO is very broad nowadays.
"The Russians keep trying to drive wedges between France and Germany," said the senior Frenchman. "They tell us that we are creating a German-dominated Europe. They tell the Germans that they can replace the French as the privileged partner in Europe for the dialogue on EastWest detente. But we French and Germans compare notes, and the Russians will soon realize they are wasting their breath."
The Germans express gratification that the French now consult them on their activities in France's formerly exclusive colonial preserves in Africa. The two countries follow slightly different lines on South Africa, but they agree without fuss to disagree.
Economically, there remain some important disagreements. Giscard favors a less cautious Germany policy to stimulate more demand for French exports in Germany. France is West Germany's single largest customer, and Germany is France's second largest trading partner. Trade between the two totaled about $30 billion last year. The two countries also are heavily tied together in a number of major industrial projects like the European Airbus.
The Germans feared a leftist victory in France as much because of the havoc they believed it would have created in the French economy as for European balance-of-power reasons. A sick French economy would have made the German economy ill in turn, they believe. German Economic Minister Otto Lambsdorf has often said that he is more concerned about the continued health of the French franc than with the falling dollar.
The meeting here was the 32nd French-German summit since the 1963 friendship treaty established the semiannual get-togethers. But in the last six years, Schmidt and Giscard - both former finance ministers - have met dozens of other times.
In a speech here Tuesday night Schmidt told the assembled delegations that it may seem hard to believe, but at this meeting - meant mostly to deal with the arcane details of currency reform - he and Giscard had in fact spent a lot of time talking about history. He said they talked about the common history of the two peoples and how much there was to learn from it, and that the last 30 years shows that there is no historical fatalism that cannot be overcome by political will.
Later, a German official said he did not find such a discussion hard to believe. There is nothing threatening France beyond the Rhine anymore," he said.