Keynote: 50 years of Franco German Youth Exchange Programs

Presenting the keynote speech at AGI’s recent workshop on Political and Societal Leadership in Encouraging Reconciliation, Markus Ingenlath discusses the experiences and best practices he has garnered from his tenure as Secretary General of the Franco German Youth Office (OFAJ/DFJW). Marking its fiftieth anniversary this year, 2013, the OFAJ/DFJW promotes intercultural understanding and personal development through organizing exchange programs between French and German youth. 

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German-French relations and their transition, through a process of reconciliation, from being hereditary enemies to achieving close – if not always easy – co-operation, can’t be considered as a standardised role model for reconciliation.

German-French relations have their own specific history and geopolitical context. And although their relationship is undoubtedly a success story, both from the German-French and the European point of view, it cannot be simply copied to other conflict regions around the world.

The history of the two neighbours and cultural spheres, France and Germany, has always had a great – if not decisive – influence on war and peace in Europe. However, on closer examination, we can affirm that the reconciliation process and the present close co-operation between the two countries may be quite interesting to other conflict regions in two respects:

  • as a great source of inspiration and as an encouraging proof that a conflict once considered almost insurmountable can not only take a peaceful turn, but also, under certain circumstances, can bring about peace and prosperity.
  • as a “box of bricks” containing diverse and very concrete instruments of understanding and co-operation. They represent to this very day the “glue” that cements the co-operation and dialogue between these two very different countries.

Some of these experiences and instruments originating from German-French relations since the end of the Second World War will be presented here.

Civil society has played, and continues to play a fundamental role in the development of German-French relations since the end of the Second World War.

Long before the Elysée Treaty was signed in 1963, it was the citizens of both countries who, on the basis of civil-societal structures, promoted dialogue and immediate initiatives to bring about reconciliation.

They included, for instance, French resistance fighters, prisoners of war and German immigrants who had survived internment in concentration camps and – influenced by their experiences – were pushed for an active dialogue with their German neighbours.

Hence, during the first few years after the Second World War, German-French encounters were organised between students, journalists, clerics and other professional groups with the aim of creating mutual trust. Town partnerships between Germany and France were created as early as the 1950s, allowing regular direct contacts between their citizens. The first town partnership arose in 1950 (Ludwigsburg – Montbéliard). It was not easy, however, because many people still distrusted their neighbouring country. Nevertheless, the organisers of these encounters didn’t get discouraged, for they were convinced that this was the only way to overcome hostility.

Furthermore, the rapidly growing European Movement, mainly composed of young citizens, called, as early as the 1950s, for German-French reconciliation between the two countries in favour of a United Europe. Here, it must not be forgotten that the process of European integration was a joint task and a challenge, serving as a binding force and powerful motivation to achieve German-French reconciliation.

The Elysée Treaty – a bilateral and political treaty between the two nation states – must also be judged in the context of the political demands arising within civil society at the time. These early and remarkably emphatic demands emanating from civil society most certainly influenced the subsequent political decisions made by De Gaulle and Adenauer.

In Eastern Germany, history took another turn, the initiatives between the GDR and France enclosed also a number of town partnerships which were in France often driven by party members of the Communist party. As far as the GDR was concerned the exchange with the “Non Socialist Abroad” was strictly controlled by state authorities. But this is not topic of this speech.

Especially today, German-French relations are based not only on extremely close and intensive inter-governmental political co-operation, but also on the broad anchoring of these relations within civil society, as well as on the individual experiences of a great number of citizens. The Franco-German Youth Office on its own has been able to reach over eight million young citizens through exchange programs and intercultural encounters since its founding in 1963. It created a network which includes over 6000 partners, organizations and individuals from the civil society.

The founding of the Franco-German Youth Office as an autonomous organisation, as well as the endowment of this institution with 10 million euros from each side, offered and still offers tens of thousands of young citizens each year the opportunity to discover and share their neighbour’s culture and language to discuss their cultural differences in order to see their own culture more profoundly “through the eyes of the other” and to get to know it from a different perspective.

These individual experiences are – on a very broad level – one of the main pillars on which German-French relations have been constructed. The Elysée Treaty is the basis, and the Franco-German Youth Office an instrument in order to develop “lively relationships” between the two countries. This relationship must be promoted constantly within each new generation and demands a lot of enthusiasm.

Particularly valuable and decisive for the success of German-French relations are the diversity of encounters and the dialogue between the citizens and institutions of both countries. The Franco-German Youth Office offers several individual exchange facilities (from 3 to 6 months long) as well as group exchanges subsidies.

Encounters between young sports people; exchange programmes for young trainees and working people such as bakers, librarians, and mechatronics technicians; exchange programmes for young scientists; a great diversity of opportunities in the cultural sphere, such as joint theatre workshops, music orchestras and hip-hop events; educational support and training of multipliers in the field of international youth education; the provision of joint advanced training for teachers; research on the dimensions of language in exchange programmes; and the availability of language and interpreting courses for youth encounters – all these are but a few of the examples of the wide range of offers that place their hopes on the broad foundations created within these relationships.

An important element in the strengthening of the French-German relationship is the instrument of intercultural learning and intercultural research, which researchers and partner organisations have been developing since the 1960s under the direction of the Franco-German Youth Office, and is now a central element in our educational exchange programme. The methods are based on the following principles:

  • Reciprocity (from host role to guest and reverse), which constitutes a major difference respect to most EU-programs.
  • Almost equal numbers of participants from both countries
  • A balanced use of both languages

The goal is to learn to understand the differences and otherness with regard to the “other”, to avoid immediate judging of strange, unaccustomed (and unsettling) modes of cultural behaviour, and to learn instead to understand them in the context of their historical, social, political, sociological and economic backgrounds. This means, first of all, not letting oneself being dominated by intuitive values and those of one’s own cultural setting, but engaging in a debate with the culture of the other. At the same time, intercultural competence offers a new and more profound way of getting to know one’s own culture, because the “alien culture” serves as a mirror, providing new and surprising ways of accessing one’s own ostensibly familiar culture.

The instrument of intercultural learning is also considered as a constant, interactive process: “Culture” is lively, and not an ossified shell. It is not captured in stereotypes and rigid overlapping images, but is changing and developing: even, and above all, in encounters with the other.

Of special significance in German-French relations are the aspects of time and the sustainability of all endeavours to communicate and work together.

Developing peaceful relationships, mutual understanding and the ability to act in unison require a lot of time, far more time than any conflict or war. It took 40 years before young people, organized in a youth parliament, demanded a common Franco-German history book in schools. Cultivating trust requires patience, as well as enduring and reliable actions. Fifty years after the signing of the Elysée Treaty, the founding of the Franco-German Youth Office and the development of German-French relations – which has, on the whole, been a success story – nobody can rest on these laurels.

Beyond the great success of the past, the Franco-German Youth Office aims at new challenges, among which

  • Maintain and strengthen the specific German-French cooperation within the European context
  • Reinforce the participation of young people within the various exchange programs
  • Upgrade the Franco-German Youth Office’s programs in order to aim at specific target groups (such as apprentices, young people with less opportunities, …)
  • Enhance the already existing programs regarding the educational field
    Deepen the reflexion on Franco-German exchange programs with a third country, especially in the Mediterranean territory

German-French relations demonstrate the central necessity of integrating, above all, the young generation creatively into the communication process. This is a long-term challenge, whose success also depends on whether the young generation is really granted the liberty being actively involved in events, as it was shown with the process of the history book!

Is this generation merely a symbolic fig-leaf with which our political leaders adorn themselves? Or do people genuinely trust young people and grant them the freedom to act in shaping dialogue and understanding and, hence, political activity, too.

The young generation is the political decision-maker of tomorrow. Will it be sincerely involved in shaping the process of understanding; won’t it feel “guilty” about the uncomfortable past, yet prepared to bear responsibility for history by shaping the future peacefully – without forgetting the uncomfortable past?

What role does the strengthening of interpersonal relationships play in everyday life?

Interpersonal relationships – and this is a distinct lesson learned from German-French relationships – play a central role in the communication process. No interstate treaty weighs so heavily upon us as a personal encounter and communication (especially when it takes place across language boundaries), and no political symbolism has the power or the magic of mutual personal discoveries and understanding.

This is perhaps the most important insight to be gained from German-French relations: without direct encounters and a dialogue involving (young) people, a process of reconciliation and intercultural learning cannot succeed. This encounter and this dialogue may be difficult, and sometimes even frustrating and tedious, and facing the threat of setbacks again and again, but it is, in fact, the only road to success.

In the work done by the Franco-German Youth Office on the Balkans, in a region where the wounds of war have still not healed, direct dialogue between young Serbs and Albanians, Macedonians, Bosnians and Croats holds, in fact, one of the few promises of success and concrete ways of moving towards a peaceful society in the future. Young Albanians and Serbs who are unable to encounter each other in northern Kosovo, and whose communities remain irreconcilable, use the opportunity presented to an “open dialogue” (to the anger of extremists on both sides), and often show great commitment in the process.

Together with young Germans and French, they consider possible ways of moving on in the future and discuss the contribution they might make to a future Europe. With every encounter and every – often difficult – conversation, their self-esteem and freedom to shape their future grows, and they are less vulnerable to political manipulation. They form their own opinions about the “other” and ascertain that dialogue is possible.

Herein lies the reason why reconciliation, understanding and dialogue depend, above all, on civil courage and involvement. Good neighbourly relations can only exist where there is a lively, constructive and peaceful dialogue between citizens. This is one of the central lessons to be learned from German-French relationships.

The other central lesson from German-French relationships is that fostering dialogue between citizens sustainably and on a broad basis, requires political support. This calls for a truly political will, and politicians who are courageous enough to overcome prejudices and negative feelings, and who are prepared to approach the other country despite the existing problems. When de Gaulle and Adenauer set out to intensify German-French relations, many people in Germany and France were still coming to terms with negative memories from the war. They were unable to imagine their two countries working closely together. However, the aversion among broad sections of the population and in the press did not stop de Gaulle and Adenauer, quite the contrary: they did all they could to convince people that overcoming prejudices and developing close co-operation was of vital interest to both countries and their peoples.

And they also understood that it was central to the development of long-term relationships not to decide over the heads of the people, but to grant the civil societies of both countries a central place in these relationships – a place through which their civil societies could help to cultivate these relationships.

The lesson from German-French relationships: We need active and courageous citizens on the one hand, and active and courageous politicians on the other hand; we can deduce therefore that there is a way for negative relationships to be transformed into constructive, peaceful and beneficial relationships for all sides involved.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.