Marking over 50 years of Franco-German understanding

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany, which established a basis for cooperation between the two countries in order to set the seal on a lasting peace, secondary school pupils came to CERN to research the Franco-German relationship.


Beneath the Microcosm Garden bubble chamber, Robert Jacob describes the BEBC project to secondary school students from the Pays de Gex and their German exchange partners.

On 22 January 1963, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle signed the Elysée Treaty. This treaty of friendship cemented the partnership between the two countries, which had torn each other apart over the course of several devastating wars. Fifty years on, secondary school students from the Pays de Gex and their German exchange partners have been learning about Franco-German friendship. How was the partnership between the two countries built? Who were its architects? These questions brought them to CERN for a day to research the topic of Franco-German cooperation. Here, they met two men who worked together in the 1960s and 70s: the German Horst Wenninger, a former physicist and director at CERN, and Frenchman Robert Jacob, a former technician. As Horst Wenninger explains: “Just after the Second World War, CERN was the first project in which Germans were able to work again with other European nations. This was ten years before the Franco-German treaty. Cooperation between nations was simpler in science than in other fields.”

Scientific projects were among the collaborations that paved the way for the treaty. Robert Jacob was sent to Germany in 1963 to install a bubble chamber in the recently opened DESY laboratory. “We were made very welcome by our German colleagues and we worked together with no problems. But we never mentioned the war,” he recalls. 

Jacob was recruited by CERN in 1964 and worked on the Big European Bubble Chamber (BEBC), a flagship Franco-German fundamental research project based on a tripartite partnership between Germany, France and CERN. Horst Wenninger was one of those in charge. “The heart of the team was Franco-German,” he recalls. “We had no cultural or language difficulties. Our working methods complemented each other.”

Fifty years later, is the question of the Franco-German relationship still relevant? The young students interviewed pairs of French and German physicists who work together every day in the LHC experiments. Sometimes this cooperation took on a more personal dimension: Etiennette Auffray, a French physicist at CMS, met her future husband, a German, while she was working on her doctorate at CERN. “We should thank the physicists in the 1950s who built this European scientific collaboration. I am indebted to them, on both a professional and personal level," she told the pupils. “Scientists, particularly particle physicists, are capable of overcoming cultural differences to bring a project to fruition. It’s a model which we should transmit to other fields.”

“For the pupils and teachers, these meetings were very positive,” notes Laurent Marc, German language teacher at Péron secondary school. “They showed the importance of learning languages, and how understanding is built on personal relationships.” History is the sum of individual stories. “When we were young, aside from our technical achievements, we felt like we were building something important," emphasises Robert Jacob. 

Even though cooperation between nations in Europe (and now worldwide) seems commonplace at CERN, it still needs to be protected. “Nationalism is always a threat, particularly against the backdrop of the current Euro crisis. It is important to remember and pass on what we have achieved over the past 50 years so that we don’t run the risk of destroying it," concludes Horst Wenninger.

by Corinne Pralavorio