Merkel lambasted by France despite her softer tone

An attack by French Socialists on Angela Merkel's drive for belt-tightening coincides with concessions by the German chancellor on austerity, but five months from elections she is loathe to trumpet her flexibility.

Senior French politicians sought to calm the waters while the German government played down the remarks, from a leaked document which called Merkel's insistence on eurozone austerity "selfish".

The tone in Berlin has softened recently towards its eurozone partners -- news that the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France would not tame their deficits this year to within EU-set levels was not met with criticism in the EU's top economy.

Merkel simply wished France "success" with its new plan to get its public deficit back under the EU limit of 3.0 percent of output by 2014, a year later than expected.

And French President Francois Hollande's desire for gradual reform rather than risking a general strike was also welcomed as a clever political approach in Berlin recently, as his popularity plummets a year after taking power.

"Ms Merkel has a conciliatory tone because she has only one fear -- that Francois Hollande publicly says 'we'll let the deficits slide', taking the lead of a kind of alliance of southern countries which would end up isolating her in Europe," a Berlin-based European diplomat said.

"Merkel with a Hitler moustache at the Greek demonstrations, that wasn't fun. But if the image of Germany worsened to the point of affecting its exports, that would be much more serious," the diplomat added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That did not stop however Hollande's Socialist Party slamming conservative Merkel for her insistence on austerity and accusing her of being obsessed with "Berlin's trade balance and her electoral future".

The draft document on Europe was leaked Friday as its neighbour counts down to general elections on September 22 where Merkel's coalition is threatened although she personally is popular.

Germany views its cooperation with France as "essential", the German government spokesman said Monday, insisting "government action" was what counted, not draft texts from political parties.

However the counter-criticism of France was biting from a leading member of Merkel's conservatives, who slammed the Socialists' statement as "disproportionate".

"The left-wing government cannot deflect from the fact that France needs far-reaching structural reforms," Andreas Schockenhoff, the grouping's deputy chairman in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, said.

Even before the Socialists' criticism, the co-chairman of the Greens group in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, acknowledged hiccups in the German-Franco "engine" but said it had always been the case.

"The notion of the Franco-German 'couple' is all put on. Merkel and (former conservative French President Nicolas) Sarkozy on the personal level never worked. But at a certain point they decided they had common interests," he told AFP.

Claire Demesmay, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said as far as public statements were concerned, Berlin was showing restraint. "The contrary would be counter-productive. People fear this image of Germany abroad," she said.

Even the German head of European defence and aerospace company EADS, Tom Enders, said in France's Le Monde newspaper Tuesday that Paris and Berlin must cooperate to avoid Germany finding itself "alone against everyone".

Merkel is mindful of rocking the boat as she hopes to win a third term as chancellor at the helm of her current centre-right coalition, under attack by the left which is calling for steps to foster growth and by a newly-established anti-euro party.

Ahead of the election, "Berlin has a prime interest in... the absence of dramatic tensions. The result seems to be an approach that is pragmatic and flexible without changing the overall direction by much," Holger Schmieding, an analyst with Berenberg bank said.