France and Germany mark 50 years of post-war reconciliation
The leaders of France and Germany are marking 50 years of post-war reconciliation in a meeting on Sunday aimed at easing tensions between the eurozone's two powerhouses on tackling the debt crisis. However, the desecration of the graves of 40 German soldiers has cast a shadow over the ceremony in the northern French city of Reims, a region bearing long and deep scars from centuries of war with Germany.
The reconciliation between the wartime aggressor and its conquered neighbour, symbolically achieved in 1962 by then French president Charles de Gaulle and former chancellor Konrad Adenauer, was a milestone, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
The pair had shown "courage and foresight" and had swept aside the doubts of many, Merkel said, adding it was "an essential step on the road for a reunited Europe and that is why France and Germany work together."
France and Germany, the euro area's top economies, have worked closely in recent years as they scramble to solve the debt crisis hammering the single currency.
Observers are watching with interest to see how the relationship develops between new French President Francois Hollande, a centre-left advocate of growth, and Merkel, a centre-right defender of austerity.
The two have locked horns on resolving the eurozone crisis with Hollande advocating more spending to boost growth -- a position winning over more adherents in Europe -- while Merkel touts serious belt-tightening.
A major irritant is over a European agreement to create a banking regulator.
Germany seems willing to forsake a significant amount of national sovereignty for a strong euro currency. But France wants more teeth for the leader of the Eurogroup -- an informal body comprising the 17 nations using the euro.
Hollande, in an interview with the French newspaper I'Union Saturday, said it was important for the two countries to work together with other member states to tackle the crisis.
However, Sunday's highly symbolic ceremony has been marred by the desecration of the gravestones of 40 World War I German soldiers at a military cemetery some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of the spot where the two leaders are meeting to celebrate their post-war ties.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls strongly condemned the vandalism uncovered Saturday at the Saint-Etienne-a-Arnes cemetery. The soldiers whose graves were desecrated were all teenagers aged between 14 and 18.
"An enquiry is under way and all means are being employed to find those responsible for this terrible desecration," his ministry said in a statement.
According to initial information, some 40 wooden steles were pulled up and some used for a camp fire. Several beer bottles were found nearby.
It was not immediately possible to say whether this was a "determined action" or just the work of "irresponsible people", a spokesman at the local prefecture said.
There were no signs of any political message, he added.
"This is a lowly act, it's unwarranted and stupid violence," Junior European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Sunday.
"On this highly symbolic day, one cannot but be deeply shocked by such an act."
The main ceremony will be held at the cathedral in Reims, occupied by the Prussians in 1870, devastated by bombings during World War I, and the city where on May 7, 1945, US general Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht.