'60s radical works for harmony Ex-rebel is official in German city

February 08, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

FRANKFURT -- Daniel Cohn-Bendit appears in his office rumpled, tousled, unshaven and sniffling with a cold, not quite what you expect from a German public official, but OK for a post-revolutionary radical from the '60s.

The generation of the '60s is in office everywhere, of course, notably in the White House. But it's still a bit surprising to find "Danny-the-Red" of 1968 ensconced as a deputy mayor in the financial and banking center of Germany.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit is "Stadtrat" for multicultural affairs in Frankfurt, which means he's a kind of ombudsman for what is proportionately the biggest foreign population in any German city. And he does a pretty good job, according to most accounts.

Frankfurt has escaped the anti-foreigner violence and hatred that flashed across Germany after the firebomb attacks at Rostock in late August. Mr. Cohn-Bendit got much of the credit.

"Here you don't have the aggressive, violent things you had in Rostock," Mr. Cohn-Bendit says, in an English accented more by his cold than his German. He speaks German, French, Italian and English fluently.

"A lot of time people say you get this aggressivity when you get a certain percentage of foreigners in a country, " he says. "This is not true. In Rostock, you had 0.8 percent foreigners and in Frankfurt you have 27 percent.

"I give you another figure," he says. "In all the five new Bundeslaender [the states of the old communist East Germany] you had in total 180,000 foreigners. In Frankfurt alone you have 180,000.

"The problem is how to get people used to live with immigration," he says. "In German there is a proverb: What the peasant doesn't know he doesn't eat. So, of course, what the people don't know they don't like. Or they're afraid of it. Some are curious, then interested. But if you get to know more [foreigners] you say they are as good or bad as you are."

"I wouldn't say everybody here loves immigrants," Mr. Cohn-Bendit says. "I don't think this is a problem. In time you can learn to love someone."

Frankfurt needs foreigners

So, Frankfurt has come to accept its foreigners; somewhat like a partner in an arranged marriage, Frankfurt knows it needs its foreigners. As a banking and finance center, this is a service city that needs many unskilled workers.

"Frankfurt knew from the beginning it needed these people to make the city function," Mr. Cohn-Bendit says. "Seventy percent the garbage collectors are migrants. The economy would crash without immigrants."

Most came when Germany recruited workers during its "economic miracle." More than half have lived in Frankfurt more than 10 years. Forty percent of the children in the primary schools are non-German. They come from Yugoslavia, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Greece, Poland -- from a total of 147 countries.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit does his best to encourage tolerance among these foreigners and Germans. When Germans complain that some foreigner doesn't put his trash in the ecologically correct bin -- garbage, paper, glass (white and green) or plastic -- he intervenes.

He helps a Turkish woman cabdriver who complains she is being discriminated against by the central taxi bureau. He finds portable toilets for Poles who hang out drinking beer in a public square after Sunday church services.

He organizes anti-racism rallies. He counsels a clergyman worried about a neighborhood petition against a refugee shelter. He champions asylum and citizenship rights.

"Whoever has a complaint can come here and we try to find a solution," he says.

Separating trash and installing portable toilets are a long way from the student rebellions of 1968 when Mr. Cohn-Bendit grew into a legendary figure helping to spark the student demonstrations that swept across France in 1968, demonstrations that ignited social, political and economic crises that still echo today.

Legend has it that he started it all when he led a demonstration against segregation of the sexes in student housing at the University of Nanterre, near Paris.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit was so unruly back then France called him the "German anarchist" and banned him from the country. Even French Communists told him to shut up. He called them "Stalinist creeps." He declared communism "obsolete," about 20 years early as it turned out.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit wasn't exactly welcome in Germany. But he holds German citizenship, although he was born in Montauban in southwestern France. His parents were German Jews who fled Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in the '30s.

So he speaks about the immigration of foreign workers into Germany, or the plight of asylum-seekers, with the intensity of experience.

"If you keep [people] in hotels or in a specific situation as lifetime asylum-seekers," he says, "you destroy them psychologically. This is terrible." Asylum-seekers now live isolated from the German community. They're not allowed to work.

"They come here to fight for life," he says. "They want to work. They don't want to get something from the state. They want to build something.

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