Berlin tries to cool coronavirus tensions near French border

By Hans von der Burchard

Germany's foreign minister sought to reassure France on Thursday after reports that Germans in a border region have lashed out at French commuters over fears of them spreading coronavirus.

Germany began to restrict its borders with EU neighbors in mid-March due to concerns about the pandemic, but made exceptions for certain travelers and the transport of goods.

In the tiny western region of Saarland, which borders France and Luxembourg, local media have in recent days reported clashes dating back to late March, including cars with French license plates being scratched or pelted with eggs, and Germans yelling: "Fucking Frenchmen, go back to your fucking corona country!"

A report by German daily Handelsblatt this week further inflamed the issue. The newspaper quoted Saarland's Interior Minister Klaus Bouillon as saying: "Border protection is human protection," and summarized additional comments to indicate he believed every French person turned away at the border meant a bit more security for the people of Saarland.

After the report attracted national attention, Bouillon said in a Facebook post Wednesday that he had never said things as they appeared in the story. "I deeply regret that my statements in recent days and weeks were interpreted this way," said Bouillon, a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

But the Handelsblatt comments still drew condemnation from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat from Saarland, who on Thursday called them “unacceptable.”

"It hurts us that French people in Saarland are being berated and insulted at the moment," Maas wrote on Twitter, adding: "Such statements from a Saarland minister are unacceptable. We can be very happy that the majority are not letting go of their openness toward our French friends.”

Social Democrat Jo Leinen, a former MEP from Saarland, suggested Bouillon did not belong in the regional government.

"How much longer can Saarland's Interior Minister Bouillon continue to discriminate against and insult our French neighbors? What he says is unspeakable and does not fit with the government of the Saarland," he wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Bouillon said in his Facebook statement that he had been "surprised and shocked" by the report, adding: "I would like to emphasize at this point that I have always lived by the German-French friendship."

Local public broadcaster Saarländischer Rundfunk reported Thursday that the paraphrasing within the Handelsblatt report had come from a statement by Bouillon in March, in which he said of border checks: "First of all, the French know that when they come, they will be checked. We do spot checks. And if we can find some every day that we send back, we've minimized the risk."

Bouillon, in his Facebook post, also defended the border closures between Germany and France, saying that "I also see it as my task to protect all of us from the coronavirus in the best possible way."

Saarland's state premier, Tobias Hans, also of the CDU, tried to ease tensions on Thursday, tweeting: "We have to fight together with our friends in France and Luxembourg against the spread of the coronavirus, because we are all in the same boat."