Merkel and Chirac discuss Congo mission, free markets
Chirac slams protectionist allegations as "absurd"Chirac slams protectionist allegations as "absurd"
Berlin (dpa) - French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday slammed allegations his country is reverting to economic protectionism as "absurd" and underlined the high level of foreign investment in France.
Following talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, both leaders sought to dispel any differences over free markets in the European Union and pledged to cooperate in the energy sector.
"France has been accused in the foreign media of being protectionist," said Chirac at a joint briefing, adding: "This is absolutely absurd."
Chirac noted the level of foreign investment in his country was double that in Germany and three times that in Italy.
"France is one of the most liberal countries in Europe," he said.
Berlin has been critical of what French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin calls "economic patriotism" as in the rushed merger, brokered by Paris, of Gaz de France and the Franco-German utility Suez.
Merkel said she had been "surprised" by the foreign investment figures presented by Chirac but insisted there had been no high level discussions of individual cases with the French leader.
"This is up to business," said Merkel, adding: "We need foreign investment and we need the internal European market."
This softer stance comes after both Merkel and her economics minister, Michael Glos, directed criticism at EU countries - including France - which are widely seen to be building up national protectionist barriers in the 25-nation bloc.
While not mentioning France directly, Merkel has been far blunter in her rejection of such moves in past days.
"Above all, I am against walling off and protectionism," said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, in a newspaper interview Monday.
Glos has been even more blunt, saying, "We do not need industrial patriotism" and calling for foreign investors to be "welcomed with open arms, not just tolerated."
An expert on Franco-German relations, French political scientist Alfred Grosser, warned that free market differences were just one of several areas of conflict between Chirac and Merkel.
Grosser told Bayern 2 radio that foreign policy disagreements were also growing worse between the two leaders.
"(Merkel's) foreign policy amounts to an accusation against Chirac and (former German chancellor Gerhard) Schroeder because she makes it very clear that one cannot pretend there was no EU expansion and that there cannot be an alliance of Berlin, Paris and Moscow without bringing in the Baltic states," Grosser said.
Franco-German relations would be "on ice" until France's presidential elections in 2007, predicted Grosser.
Turning to other issues, Merkel and Chirac said their countries would work together for a European Union energy policy that would guarantee supplies while taking into account the need for competition and environmental protection.
Energy security is expected to top the agenda at next week's EU summit in Brussels following Russia's brief cut-off of gas supplies to Ukraine in January.
Merkel said France and Germany were in agreement on a possible United Nations mission to safeguard elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this June.
The 25-nation EU hopes to muster between 800 and 1,500 troops out of the total expected force of 16,000.
But Merkel stressed there were still numerous hurdles including a final decision by the UN on deployment, approval from the Congo and agreement on strictly limiting the length of deployment.
Subject: German news