Dr. Claire Demesmay, Head of Division "Intercultural formation" at the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO)

Ms. Demesmay, the FGYO celebrated its 60th anniversary in July. Congratulations! You are an expert on the history of Franco-German cooperation. What role did young people play in the work to achieve reconciliation after World War II?

Thank you for the kind congratulations! Already after the World War II, there were encounters between young people from both countries, even before there was any political rapprochement between Germany and France. The encounters took place initially on a very small scale but they were the starting point for a movement that brought the two societies closer together. In this sense, civil society - and especially youth - played a pioneering role in the rapprochement and later in Franco-German reconciliation. The initiators of these meetings, frequently former resistance fighters or concentration camp survivors, did not act out of sentimentality but rather pragmatically for the purpose of preventing a repetition of such a murderous conflict.

The governments of both countries also understood the importance of exchanges between young people from the mid-1950s. The French President Charles de Gaulle, for example, decided to address German youth during his trip to Germany in September 1962. In his speech, delivered in German to 20,000 young people in Ludwigsburg, which paved the way for the policy of Franco-German friendship, he first "congratulated" his audience on their youth and then encouraged them to work for Franco-German and, by extension, European rapprochement.

The heads of both governments then decided to institutionalize encounters between young people from Germany and France by founding the Franco-German Youth Office. Its creation, a few months after the signing of the Élysée Treaty in January 1963, made it possible to expand and intensify contacts between young people from Germany and France; this systematized exchanges which until then had been based on personal initiatives and associations. Since then, this political support has never waned and was also expressed in the founding of the Franco-German University (FGU) in 1997.

Which challenges does Franco-German youth exchange face today?

Sixty years after the founding of the Franco-German Youth Office, the objective of the pioneers of Franco-German rapprochement has largely been achieved. Bilateral tensions have dissipated in civil society. The mistrust and hostility that prevailed immediately after the war has been replaced by sympathy, and even friendship, between the two communities. As we can see from the FGYO study on the perceptions of young people in Germany and France, the neighboring country is no longer seen as a stranger, but primarily as a partner with whom people would like to cooperate in areas as varied as climate protection or the commitment to peace. At the same time, the cultural and linguistic offerings have diversified substantially and go far beyond the purely Franco-German context. Even though there are still numerous youth exchanges between the two countries, the partner country no longer has anything exotic about it. In this sense, a certain "banalization" of Franco-German relations has been observed for some years, which is also expressed in a decrease in the endeavor to learn each other's languages.

This forces the players of Franco-German cooperation to further develop what they offer in order to make them more attractive for today's youth. They do this by introducing other formats that are meant to be more participatory and inclusive in their nature, and by addressing issues that motivate youth - beginning with ecological change. The renewal of Franco-German offers also takes place with the opening of certain programs to third countries, whether in the Balkans or the countries of the Southern Mediterranean, in order to give a new dynamic to the cooperation. Finally, it is essential to further democratize exchanges by attracting young people who are not initially enthusiastic about the Franco-German or European idea. After all, such an intercultural experience often proves to be life-shaping.

The FGYO and the EVZ Foundation are planning a youth encounter. It will take place as part of the joint project "War(s) in Europe. Shared experience, collective memory? – Germany, France, Bosnia and Herzegovina”. What are the objectives of the encounter - and what are you especially looking forward to?

It is a very nice and meaningful project that our two institutions have developed together in a process of co-creation – which we at the FGYO are especially happy about. The starting point was the consideration of how peace education can be further developed in the context of international youth work, at a time when a war of aggression is taking place on European territory. This issue is extremely relevant, especially for Germany and France, which cultivate the narrative of "transforming arch-enmity into friendship" and like to see themselves as peacemakers. However, with the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, this issue goes far beyond the Franco-German framework. It is also gaining importance in the countries of the Western Balkans, which have also experienced wars in the recent past.

The common objective of this pilot project is to increase young people's awareness of social and political coexistence in Europe. For the above-mentioned reasons, it seemed important to us to open up Franco-German cooperation to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. The encounter of young people from the three countries will be framed by an exchange between professionals involved in formal and non-formal education from the three countries concerned. An initial meeting has already taken place in May to develop approaches and methods for international youth educational work, which will be incorporated into the youth encounter and will be evaluated by the professionals at the end of the year. After an intensive period of reflection, I am now especially looking forward to the youth encounter - in the way of a trip through Europe. By coming together to explore different experiences of war and conflict from World War I and World War II as well as the Balkan Wars, young participants will be able to examine, empathize, and understand how wars are handled. What we hope to achieve with this is not only an increased capacity for empathy, but also the development of a tolerance for ambiguity among the participants. This is how innovation works in international youth work!

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