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IF you ask someone who is in favour of "the European project" what that project actually is, he will not reply: "The creation of a large and powerful unitary state without any unnecessary interference from populations that, because of their ignorance and stupidity, see no need for it" - a reply that at least would have the merit of honesty.

No: he will start mumbling about peace and the need to avoid a repetition of World War II, as if, were it not for directives from Brussels about how large bananas must be or what are the permitted scents in soap, Europeans would once again be at each other's throats.

Actually, a forced European unity, conjured from no popular sentiment by a strange combination of bureaucratic mediocrity and gaseous utopianism, is more likely to lead to conflict than to prevent it; and the increasingly wide divergence of the interests of France and Germany is fast recalling the ghosts of the past. The French fear to be dominated; the Germans don't want to be condescended to.

Relations between the two countries, often called (between them) the locomotive of Europe, have deteriorated since the arrival in power of Francois Hollande, who was elected on the promise of doing precisely the opposite of what the Germans think the French ought to do. Hollande was hoping for an alliance with Italy and the German Social Democrats if they returned to power; but the German Social Democrats are closer in policy to Angela Merkel than they are to Hollande (indeed, they are the authors of the very policies Hollande was elected to resist); and Italy can hardly help itself at the moment, let alone France. Hollande wanted to go for a grand slam when Germany held all the cards.

Two or three rather foolish recent statements have made matters worse. Hollande called for a state of "friendly tension" between the two countries, as if the differences between them were merely academic or a matter of cafe discussion, rather than of fundamental national interest.

Germany wants austerity in countries with large deficits and the generous social protections that make their labour and products uncompetitive; France wants increased government spending to avoid the reduction in public sector employment, wages and social protections that inevitably would be brought about by liberalisation of the labour market.

Unfortunately, thanks to the currency union (to which, incidentally, the population of neither country consented), French wishes can be met by one of only two methods: either the Germans pay for the deficits of other countries or accept a high rate of inflation. Neither appeals to them very much.

The president of the French National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, recently called for a "confrontation" with Germany over this matter. In his blog, Bartolone said that he had used the word in its old French sense, a comparison of two points of view; but the word is now used much more in its English sense - that is to say, of a conflict or clash, and the second is what he was taken to mean (and what I suspect he did mean).

Then a document produced by the leaders of Hollande's Socialist Party referred to Merkel's "intransigent egoism" that considered only "Berlin's trade surplus and her own electoral prospects".

(In the minds of most of the European political class, electorates are just a bloody nuisance, getting in the way of proper policy. That is why the class is so attached to European institutions, in which powerful apparatchiks who know best can take no notice of the dummy parliament and do not have to face the humiliating ritual of elections.)

A close adviser of Hollande regretted the wording of the document, saying that "it was all regrettable, disagreeable, inopportune", but also that it was not very serious.

What he did not do was to repudiate its fundamental meaning.

However maladroit its wording, and however much such maladroitness is a sign of political incompetence, the document pointed to a conflict of interests that was far from purely verbal. Hollande was elected on a program that could not but have brought him into conflict with Germany, even a Germany governed by the Social Democrats. But without the monetary union, there would have been no such possible conflict: Hollande could have followed his own policy (albeit at the cost of constant devaluation and the eventual impoverishment of his country) without bothering Germany.

Thus the overweening ambition of the European political class has resuscitated conflict between old enemies where none need have existed.

This is not to say that either the French or the German political elites have fallen out of love with the European project, far from it. The sole question is Humpty Dumpty's - which is to be master, that's all? Unfortunately, it has proved rather a dangerous one in Europe down the ages.