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French prime minister extends eurozone olive branch to Berlin

JOUY-EN-JOSAS, France -- France's Socialist government made a public show of unity with Germany on Wednesday with pledges to cooperate closely with Berlin on Europe, seeking to dampen talk that Paris was siding with southern European nations against austerity.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Paris was determined to press ahead with Berlin on stronger economic governance in Europe to resolve the debt crisis — a persistent German demand but a divisive issue for the ruling Socialist Party in France, where many are reluctant to cede more authority to Brussels.

President Francois Hollande's policy of showing sympathy to debt-laden nations like Italy and Spain as they face more austerity demands has stirred concern in some quarters that he is not closely enough aligned with Germany's Angela Merkel.

Yet Ayrault, a German speaker who has input on bilateral issues, said Paris was keenly focused on relations with Berlin, the eurozone's top economy and effective paymaster.

“The next phase of European construction will only be possible thanks to Franco-German agreement,” Ayrault told an annual conference of France's Medef business chamber. “The Franco-German couple is more necessary than ever.”

But as Paris and Berlin lay plans for closer economic union, they should not shut out the views of other EU partners, Ayrault said, adding that Italy in particular must play a “driving role.”

His comments, which seemed aimed at silencing any concerns about the Franco-German relationship, were echoed by other senior cabinet members. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a meeting of French ambassadors that the Paris-Berlin axis was “crucial” to Europe.

Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, meanwhile, told Les Echos newspaper that, while there had been “a period of apprenticeship,” relations with Berlin were now working well. Officials in Berlin have suggested that Hollande, who won power in May with a campaign against German-led austerity, has recognized that he needs to work closely with Berlin to resolve the four-year-old eurozone crisis.

“The French have finally realized that they need us to get things done in Europe,” one senior German official said this week, after a meeting between Moscovici and his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble in Berlin on Monday.

Moscovici told Les Echos he had set up a Franco-German working group with Schaeuble to forge a common position on eurozone issues and competitiveness.

“We are ready to go further in European integration provided each step includes a further element of solidarity. That is why we have not dropped the idea of pooling national public debts,” he was quoted as saying.

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