GERMANY’S Chancellor Angela Merkel has ignited a political storm after she openly supported French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his re-election battle.
The German leader came under fire from critics at home for interfering in French domestic political affairs.
But she dismissed the criticism today, saying it was natural for her to support someone who was her political "friend". Her spokesman said her support was on a personal level and not as Germany's chancellor.
"I support Nicolas Sarkozy on all levels because we belong to political parties that are friends," a cheerful-looking Mrs Merkel said at a news conference.
"It is normal that we support parties that are friends."
France goes to the polls in less than 80 days, but both leaders played down the issue at a Paris news conference held after a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting and ahead of an unprecedented joint television appearance.
Mrs Merkel said that Mr Sarkozy had supported her in 2009 during her own election campaign. The pair are so politically close they have been dubbed "Merkozy".
Mrs Merkel also pointed out that the French leader's Socialist opponent Francois Hollande had recently come to Germany to address the opposition SPD.
Mr Sarkozy, also smiling, thanked Mrs Merkel for her "friendship and trust" and - without citing him by name - slammed Mr Hollande's plan to renegotiate a eurozone fiscal compact seen by Berlin and Paris as a solution to the debt crisis.
France and Germany were once seen as the twin motor of the European Union, but Paris is now clearly the junior partner, its economy lagging behind by any measure, and Mr Sarkozy has turned to his fellow right-winger for ideas.
Mr Sarkozy trails Mr Hollande in the opinion polls, Mrs Merkel fears that any new left-wing French administration will diverge from her austerity plans.
Mr Sarkozy now cites Germany's success almost daily to justify his own policies.
His opponents have accused him of toeing Germany's line and even some in his own camp are worried about his close adherence to Berlin's views.
"We must be careful not to appear to be following Germany's lead," said Lionnel Luca, a UMP lawmaker, warning against the "whiff of Germanophobia exuded by the Socialist Party for political reasons."
Mr Hollande has taken a strong lead ahead of the French presidential vote, with polls showing him taking 28 to 30 per cent of votes in the first round, against 23 to 24 per cent for Mr Sarkozy.