By Luke Baker and Nicholas Vinocur
BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - France cranked up criticism of the European Commission on Wednesday with one official calling its president Jose Manuel Barroso a lame duck and suggesting he should never have been appointed.
Stepping up a war of words that has rumbled for two weeks, the Socialist speaker of France's lower house of parliament dismissed Barroso, a former center-right prime minister of Portugal, as a "casting error" who could not be relied upon.
"Barroso is a man of the past," Claude Bartolone told Le Parisien newspaper. "When (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel says he's a casting error, she's right: he's lost the plot. His behavior is unbearable."
However, a spokesman for Merkel said the conservative chancellor had never made such a comment, which French media reported this week she had been heard to utter in private.
"I don't recognize this quote and it doesn't reflect the thinking of the chancellor," spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
The dispute stems, at least in part, from comments Barroso made in an interview this month that appeared to criticize France for seeking to restrict free trade negotiations with the United States, saying such an approach was "extremely reactionary" and likening it to the anti-globalization movement.
In an interview with French daily Les Echos, Barroso said his comments had been taken out of context and that he was targeting critics with a nationalist and protectionist agenda, not the French government.
"All those who know me know that I am a true friend of France and that I greatly admire its influential culture," Barroso told the newspaper.
Nevertheless, French officials from Socialist President Francois Hollande on down were angered. The industry minister, outspoken leftist Arnaud Montebourg, went as far as to accuse Barroso of fueling far-right groups.
That was too much for Barroso, who denounced the comments and urged political leaders not to cast Europe as their enemy. Undeterred, the spokeswoman of Hollande's government confirmed that Montebourg's remark reflected French thinking.
"The terms used are the trademark frank-talking of the minister that we know so well," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told the weekly cabinet news briefing.
"As for the substance ... these are comments we share."
The verbal jousting masks an array of other issues, from pressure on Paris to implement economic reforms to questions about France's role in Europe and the world, and who will replace Barroso when his second term as Commission president ends in late 2014.
To an extent there is always friction between the European Commission, which operates as the European Union's executive and civil service, and the biggest member states, which are naturally wary of having their sovereignty clipped.
In the current climate of spending cuts and recession across Europe, tensions are particularly acute, especially as the Commission is responsible for making recommendations to member states about how to improve their economies.
The Commission's advice to France cut to the heart of Hollande's Socialist agenda, urging his government, already unpopular with voters, to raise the retirement age, avoid adding to labor costs and push through other reforms.
Hollande bridled at being "dictated to" by the Commission, saying that while France would meet the deficit goals set out for it, it alone would decide how to get there.
The Commission was frustrated by the rebuff since it had at the same time agreed to give France two extra years to meet its budget deficit target, generous leeway not granted to many other member states.
"In part, this is payback for a series of things where the French feel that we have not taken their views sufficiently into account," said a Commission official, responding to the latest salvo from Bartolone and others in Hollande's circle.
"It's a diversion from the inability of the French to deliver essential reforms at home. Barroso is simply the latest excuse. Before it was Merkel."
However, there are growing rumblings from a number of member states, particularly in northern Europe, about the Commission's competence on economic policy, especially the austerity programs that Barroso and his officials have advocated, even though member states have also backed those policies.
In his interview with Les Echos, Barroso acknowledged that the economic crisis had fueled anxiety and extremism but he called on French politicians not to use the EU as a scapegoat, saying it was part of the solution, not the problem.
With the Commission ending its term in November next year, jockeying for position is going on for the next administration, even if the current one is not yet a lame duck since it is still making legislative proposals.
The Commission president is traditionally chosen in a grand bargain between Germany, France and other leading member states involving several top jobs in the EU's institutions.
But next year, the European Parliament will have a larger say in the nominee, which has raised the stakes and may have brought forward the squabbling over Barroso's successor.
When Barroso was first appointed in 2004, he was most strongly backed by Britain with support from Germany. France lost out, with its commissioner given only the lowly transport portfolio, and would not want that to happen again.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Mark John and Natalie Huet in Paris; Noah Barkin in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones, Paul Taylor and Peter Graff)