German opposition leader Angela Merkel, tipped to be the country's next chancellor after upcoming elections, called Tuesday for an overhaul of the Franco-German partnership to take greater account of the interests of other member states.
Two months ahead of the probable polling date, the head of Germany's Christian Democratic Union used a visit to Paris to give reassurances of her attachment to the EU's central relationship -- but also to signal support for the reform-minded ideas of presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, France's ambitious interior minister.
In a joint press conference, the two politicians said that the Franco-German axis had become over-dominant and needed to be extended to include other countries.
The Franco-German alliance "is an essential element in the EU but it goes without saying that it must not be directed against others," Merkel said. "We are anxious to make the Franco-German relationship work for the benefit of Europe. The other countries must not have the feeling that we are deciding things above their heads. We need to show our ability to react inventively to renew the Franco-German partnership," she said.
Sarkozy who is also head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, said the Paris-Berlin alliance had "too often been seen as a threat or a cause for concern by our partners."
"We believe this axis must be overhauled, because friendship between France and Germany -- indispensable though it is -- must not be maintained against the interests of the rest, but for the rest," he said.
"We do not want the axis to exclude friendship and collaboration with the others, top of the list Britain, Spain and Italy," the minister said.
The two politicians hold common ground on other EU-related subjects, including the membership aspirations of Turkey, a subject Merkel broached.
Merkel repeated her belief in a "privileged partnership" for Ankara rather than full accession, telling journalists in Paris that a victory of her party would lead to "intense discussions" in the EU ahead of the October target date for the start of membership talks.
"After the failures of the referendums (on the EU constitution) in France and the Netherlands, we need to start worrying about Europe's future. We need to talk about the limits of future enlargement. We need borders. People have to know where the borders are," she said.
Earlier Merkel held separate meetings with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was appointed following the rejection of the EU constitution in France's May 29 referendum.
After seeing Chirac, Merkel balanced her remarks on Europe to express her commitment to the Franco-German alliance. "Every initiative which is taken must be open to all the countries in Europe. But France and Germany must be the engine for these initiatives ... European construction depends very largely on Franco-German relations," she said after a 90-minute meeting with Chirac at the Elysee palace.
Merkel described her talks with Chirac as "excellent" and very friendly.
"We want a political Europe -- but above all a Europe which solves the problems of men and women, the problems of unemployment, the economy, growth and innovation, and which makes Europe one of globalization's winners," she said.
Chirac said that "Germany and France share an ambition for a political Europe which responds to the expectations of its citizens and asserts itself in a globalized world," his spokesman reported.
Merkel's trip to France was being billed as a short working visit, but Chirac and other French leaders were aware they were meeting with the woman most likely to become Germany's next chancellor in possible early elections this fall.
The decision to travel to Paris came after Merkel made a brief, one-day visit to Kosovo on Friday for talks with the German military contingent in the province and top international and local politicians. She has also opined recently on other aspects of German foreign policy including Berlin's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and her reluctance to send troops to Iraq.
Merkel crashes Chirac-Schröder relationship
Although both Merkel and Chirac are conservatives, the meeting was slightly awkward considering the French leader's close friendship with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Merkel has made no secret that she would like to strengthen Berlin's ties to both the United States and Britain if made chancellor. But she will have to walk a fine line if she intends to follow a stronger transatlantic course without causing the French to believe she is doing so at the expense of Germany's historically important relationship with France.
And though her Christian Democrats are currently riding high in opinion polls, Merkel still has to win an election that isn't even certain to take place.
Schröder, battered by a string of state poll losses, deliberately lost a no-confidence vote before parliament on July 1 with the aim of triggering an early election and winning a fresh mandate for his unpopular economic reform drive. But German President Horst Köhler has until July 22 to decide whether to dissolve parliament and call a national poll, and even then the country's highest court could deem the proceedings unconstitutional.