BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel was criticized in Germany on Tuesday for her outspoken support for Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential election campaign, raising worries her intervention could harm German interests.
Joining Sarkozy in two TV appearances in Paris that were also broadcast in Germany on Monday, the chancellor said it was "perfectly natural" to support fellow conservative Sarkozy in what is likely to become his uphill battle to be re-elected.
Yet German newspapers and opposition leaders said there was a danger Merkel was going too far with her unprecedented support for a foreign leader. Supporting Sarkozy as a conservative party leader was one thing they said, but it was undemocratic and unacceptable to use the powers of her office as chancellor to help a foreign leader so openly.
Some also warned that Merkel's unusually strong backing for Sarkozy, who is trailing his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls, could harm long-term German interests if the French president were defeated.
"It's damaging to German-French relations when the leader of the German government jumps into the election to help a president who's got his back to the wall," said Juergen Trittin, parliamentary leader of the opposition Greens party.
Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), also questioned the wisdom of Merkel's campaigning that is set to go well beyond the traditional perfunctory appearance or two at a party rally during the latter part of the campaign.
"It's embarrassing," said Gabriel, who may be the SPD's challenger to Merkel in next year's election. "When Sarkozy loses the election, then this will also be a defeat for Merkel."
Critics recall that Merkel's awkward attempts to block then-candidate Barack Obama from speaking in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate in 2008 may have strained relations. Obama ended up speaking elsewhere in Berlin and has not visited the city since, even though most American presidents come to the city which the United States defended during the Cold War.
Even Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, from Merkel's junior coalition partners the Free Democrats (FDP), cautiously distanced himself from Merkel's campaigning in France.
"The German government is not taking sides in the French election," the former FDP leader told Der Spiegel news magazine this week, in comments widely interpreted as a sign of disapproval.
"The German government will, naturally, remain neutral in the French election," he told German TV when asked about Merkel.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament and leader of the Greens in Strasbourg, said he was puzzled that Sarkozy would be counting on Merkel.
"Why should anyone in France who is fed up with Sarkozy suddenly decide to vote for him just because Angie pops up on TV for him?," he said.
German newspapers have also expressed concern.
"By intervening she is taking a big gamble that could harm German interests," the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper wrote in an editorial. "It looks like Hollande will be elected president in the spring. But Merkel is betting on Sarkozy winning. It's not very well-thought-out of her. She's usually smarter."
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Ben Harding)