* Foreign minister describes reform plans as "courageous"
* Germans caution that implementation will be difficult
By Andreas Rinke and Noah Barkin
BERLIN, Jan 15 Germany praised on Wednesday
economic plans unveiled by French President Francois Hollande as
a courageous "new direction" which could revitalise France just
as welfare state reforms a decade ago succeeded in its larger
Under pressure over a lacklustre economy and high
unemployment, Hollande outed himself as a "social democrat" in
the German mould on Tuesday and announced a series of measures,
including public spending cuts and tax relief for business.
Germany, which was once dismissed as the "sick man of
Europe", has rebounded in recent years thanks partly to the
reforms of Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democrat predecessor of
conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Berlin has been discreetly encouraging Hollande to take
similar steps since the Socialist became president in 2012.
"Germany also took its time and had to overcome certain
hurdles before it could agree on reforms of the economy and
labour market that promised improvement in the economic
situation," said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a
member of the German Social Democrats (SPD) and Schroeder's
former chief of staff.
"What the French president presented yesterday is first of
all courageous," he added, describing the measures as a new
direction in policy that would help not only France, but Europe
to emerge stronger from its financial crisis.
France risks inheriting "the sick man of Europe" title with
the economy forecast to grow just one percent this year. Most
economists say this is too little to bring down unemployment as
Hollande has promised.
The European Commission also welcomed the measures, saying
they promised to strengthen the competitiveness of French
business and bolster growth and employment in the country.
Claire Demesmay, an expert on France at the German Council
on Foreign Relations, said Hollande appeared to be breaking
several taboos with his announcement.
Just last May, at a 150-year anniversary celebration of the
German SPD, Hollande made clear that he saw himself as a
socialist, not a social democrat. French leftists have long
regarded social democracy - which aims to achieve welfare
structures and solidarity within a free market economy - as
dirty words because they imply an acceptance of capitalism.
Demesmay likened the French president's plans to both
Schroeder's reform drive and the SPD's decision in 1959 to break
with Marxism, but said appearing to follow German policies
carried risks for Hollande.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front,
accused the president of "Germanising" their country after his
Tuesday news conference.
"Hollande cannot bind himself too closely to Germany,"
Demesmay said, adding that big Franco-German initiatives were
unlikely before European Parliament elections. Populist parties
on the left and right, including Le Pen's, are expected to do
well in the May vote.
Others in Germany warned that it was too early to declare
Hollande's reform drive will succeed given strong opposition
from French unions and members of his own party.
"Hollande has opened a big can of worms that will unsettle
his country," the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
wrote in an editorial. "In Europe, and especially in Berlin,
people will be watching closely to see if he can stay the course
with his shift."