German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized France’s economic performance on Friday in a war of words with its Socialist president, Francois Hollande, over how to tackle Europe’s deepening debt crisis ahead of a pivotal election in Greece.
Describing her own country as Europe’s “stabilizing anchor and growth engine,” the center-right chancellor told German business leaders that Europe should talk about the growing gap between the bloc’s two biggest economies.
The unusual rhetoric came after Hollande met German center-left opposition leaders this week and also unveiled economic reforms, including partially lowering the pension age, that Berlin fears will deepen France’s economic problems.
The rift between the two powers that traditionally drive EU policy could hardly come at a worse time. If a radical left party wins today’s vote in Greece, the eurozone could find itself scrambling to avert a humiliating break-up.
Tensions have risen so much that French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault felt moved to deny that his country was trying to form a united front with Italy and Spain against Merkel and her drive for austerity in the single currency zone.
However, France later sought to cool tempers, saying relations with Germany were intact after Hollande and Merkel found common ground on G20 issues during a video conference with other EU leaders.
The spat bore out fears voiced after Hollande’s election that the Franco-German partnership may not be as close as under his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Merkel backed during the campaign.
Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), now an opposition party, accused Hollande’s Socialist party of feeling “obliged to sabotage” the Paris-Berlin dialogue because they disagreed with Merkel.
UMP national secretary Camille Bedin criticized Ayrault for advising Merkel to “take things seriously and courageously” and French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg for saying Merkel’s “ideological blindness” was to blame for having “driven seven countries out of the eurozone’s 17 into recession.”
Merkel reiterated that issuing new debt to finance growth was not sustainable and again ruled out mutualizing eurozone debt or issuing joint bonds to tackle the crisis — a stance diametrically opposed to Hollande’s.
Rebuffing international pressure on Germany to underwrite the debts of weaker eurozone economies, Merkel said this week that “Germany’s strength is not infinite.”
Hollande says Europe must do more to revive growth to offset its German-inspired focus on tackling deficits and public debt.
His positions are shared by Germany’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, who have been emboldened by his victory to step up their opposition to Merkel ahead of next year’s federal elections, where she will seek a third term.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel said after meeting Hollande and Ayrault in Paris on Wednesday that there was “no crucial point” on which his party and the French government disagreed.
The meeting at the Elysee Palace with the SPD’s three main leaders was in itself a breach of protocol as a new president would normally play host to the German chancellor before there was any question of meeting the opposition.
Hollande could have been paying Merkel back for her refusal to meet him when he was running against Sarkozy, but it was also seen as emphasizing his rejection of the policy ideas of the “Merkozy” power couple that dominated the eurozone.