French Socialists call for tougher stance on Merkel
PARIS (Reuters) - France's ruling Socialist Party is pressing President Francois Hollande to toughen his stance towards a German counterpart it describes as "self-centred", arguing that Chancellor Angela Merkel's pro-austerity policies are hurting Europe.
The message - spelled out in a 21-page document to be presented at a party brainstorming conference in June - added to growing criticism of Berlin from across the Rhine after Socialist National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone this week raised the prospect of a "confrontation" with Merkel.
The rhetoric follows a French appeal for an extra year to bring its public deficit below 3 percent of economic output in line with European targets, as rising unemployment keeps Europe's no. 2 economy in the doldrums.
"The friendship between France and Germany is not a friendship between France and the European policy of Chancellor Merkel," read the document, which has been endorsed by the Socialist Party but could still be tweaked before its June meeting on Europe.
Criticising current European policies as an "unholy alliance between the Thatcherite tone" of Britain's prime minister and the "self-centred instransigence" of Chancellor Merkel, the document urges France to speak out against austerity.
A source in Hollande's office said the document represented only the party, but did not dispute its central message.
"There is a line in the text saying the friendship between France and Germany does not only mean Mrs Merkel's policies," the source said. "Friendship lets us criticise her policies, that's what one needs to understand from this document".
Cooperation between France and Germany has long provided the main motor for decision making in the European Union, but a debt crisis has strained those ties in the past year as ideologically opposed leaders have disagreed on points of economic policy.
"FRIENDLY TENSION" OR JUST TENSION?
Hollande was critical of Merkel's insistence on budget consolidation while he was running for president last year, but has adopted a more conciliatory tone since becoming president.
He often describes France's ties with EU paymaster Germany as defined by "friendly tension" between equal partners.
But Assembly speaker Bartolone, the third most senior member of government, said the friendliness was overstated.
Hollande "calls this 'friendly tension'. For me, it's tension, period, and, if needed, a confrontation," Bartolone told the influential centre-left daily Le Monde.
"France must be able to fight against the European Right's point of view ... Austerity alone could condemn the beautiful idea that is Europe rather than save it," he added.
Hollande must rely on a solid Socialist majority in parliament to pass structural reforms this year, including overhauls of the jobless and pension systems. But a small camp of dissidents is growing, threatening his Senate majority.
As many in southern Europe complain that austerity has gone too far, the European Central Bank this week rebuffed suggestions the bloc should ease up, and German Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann called on France to follow the rules.
Yet advocates of easing the pace of austerity, long confined in France to hard-left parliamentarians, gained a nod this week from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso who noted that austerity no longer had popular support.
France's European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that Paris was not making any secret of there being a difference of opinion over austerity.
The presidential source said: "This is a very strong document which backs (Hollande's) policies in general: growth, re-launching Europe and solidarity are at the heart of it."
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