Germany reaffirmed its support for the 26-member visa-free Schengen zone after French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to pull his country out at an election rally over the weekend.
Deputy government spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters on Monday in Berlin that Sarkozy's comments should be viewed within the context of campaign rhetoric and stressed that Germany had no plans to step away from the borderless pact.
"Free movement of people is one of the most concrete and important achievements of European integration and represents a fundamental freedom," he said.
"Freedom of movement within the EU is a key asset but otherwise I must ask that you understand that we do not take a stance on discussions in the French election campaign."
Luxembourg, meanwhile, did not hold back on attacking Sarkozy over his campaign comments, labeling the center-right UMP leader "populist and anti-European." Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told German news agency dpa that Sarkozy's threat was "saber-rattling of the worse kind."
Sarkozy had said over the weekend he would temporarily pull France out of the Schengen treaty, which provides for border-free travel between signatory countries, if the European Union as a whole failed to make significant progress on combating illegal immigration within a year's time.
"It's urgent, because we can not accept being subjected to the shortcomings of Europe's external borders," Sarkozy told thousands of supporters at a campaign rally just outside of Paris. He said tightening up the external borders was the "only way to avoid the implosion of Europe."
The president also said that if elected to a second term, he would push the EU to adopt a "Buy European Act," along the lines of the US Buy American Act, which would require governments to favor products produced in Europe when making acquisitions.
"I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition. I say no to a Europe that opens up its markets when others don't," Sarkozy said, in an apparent reference to the US legislation.
The two campaign pledges appeared to be aimed at winning over conservative voters that might be persuaded to support Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the first round of voting on April 22.
Sarkozy of the conservative party UMP has an uphill battle on his hands as he bids for a second term, with the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande holding a double-digit lead in the latest opinion polls.
Immigration in particular is a hot-button issue in many parts of Europe. On Wednesday, seven EU countries, including France and Germany, called for an action plan to be drawn up, to stem what they see as a tide of illegal migration into the 27-member bloc.
dfm, pfd/sjt (AFP, dpa)