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Integration in Practice: France and Germany (June 8, 2006)

Taking the border region between Alsace (France) and Baden (Germany) as an example, this article describes French-German integration on the local level, where cross-border cooperation is common in many areas of life.

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Cheese from France, Canned Goods from Germany
Cross-Border Commuters between Alsace and Baden Are Part of Normal Life

New cobblestones are being laid in the market square in Neuf Brisach. And the memorial stone for the victims of the World Wars is being remounted. The dead who are commemorated here have names like Charles Koch or Joseph Heinrich. The streets of the Alsatian border town are empty. Only very few people and hardly any cars are in sight. A wedding party has gathered in front of the Church of Saint Louis. “Au Bon Marchand” is written on the façade of a building; the lettering is weathered. The tour guide says, “All the young married couples leave. The great master-builder Vauban built Neuf Brisach this way, and it’s stayed this way for 300 years. That’s why all the young people leave.” Functional single-family homes are not allowed to be built in Neuf Brisach’s city center since it is under historic protection. Massive fortification walls surround the city center; the strip between the ramparts has been planted with greenery.

Young French families look for apartments and houses in the surrounding communities. Many Germans who work in Freiburg or Karlsruhe also build single-family homes there. For the tour guide in Neuf Brisach, the Germans who live in Alsace have long since become part of normal life. “Yesterday we were enemies, today we’re friends,” he says, and then adds, “If the Israelis and the Palestinians got along with each other like the Germans and the French, then that would be a great achievement.” After the Second World War, cross-border cooperation along the Upper Rhine between Switzerland, France, and Germany came to a virtual standstill – almost all the bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed.

Today there are countless organizations that are supposed to contribute to improving cross-border living. The Upper Rhine Conference and the Rhineland Council have pride of place here; at the lower level, three “Eurodistricts” have been created (Freiburg/Center South Alsace, Strasbourg/Ortenau, and Basel). Additionally, almost every association has its own cross-border organization. The debate on streamlining this organizational plurality has been stalled for years.

For Maurice Zimmerle, mayor of Neuf Brisach, the Rhine, which separates his city from its German sister city of Breisach, and which caused wars and resentment for centuries, is no longer a border. “The Rhine is a means to an end; we are living with each other and for each other,” he said. The only sources of irritation are the trivialities that sometimes complicate everyday German-French life, like the fact that French firefighters cannot connect their hoses to those of their German counterparts. The mayor knows from experience that problems can also arise from differing building codes. “In France, a ceiling only has to be 20 centimeters thick, but in Germany it has to be 40 centimeters,” he says.

German-French normalcy can be observed in the small community of Volgelsheim. Situated behind an old barracks is a small housing development consisting of yellow, blue, and red homes. Toddlers play on the residential street, the Rue des Oiseleur. Hervé Piernot stands in front of his house, discussing something with his neighbors. He is one of 90,000 cross-border commuters in the Upper Rhine region: Piernot does field work for a Swiss company in Basel, but he lives with his German wife and his son in Volgelsheim. His wife is a civil servant in Germany. Every day, he commutes to Basel, and she drives to Freiburg. “The real estate here is cheaper, it’s less expensive to build; in Freiburg, I wouldn’t be able to get a single-family home of this sort for 200,000 Euro,” Piernot says, pointing to his yellow house. He has been living in Volgelsheim for eight years. The only place in Europe with more cross-border commuters is Luxembourg, with its neighbors, Belgium, France, and Germany.

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