France's Macron backs European unity in Berlin, meets Merkel

BERLIN (AP) — French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron pledged strong commitment to European unity and said that France needs to restore its economic credibility as he presented his plans to German leaders on Thursday.

Macron, an independent centrist, met conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin a day after the Netherlands' prime minister handily defeated anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders in the Dutch election.

While cautious about drawing parallels with France, Macron said the outcome shows that "you can defeat the extremes."

The former economy minister, who has no party, is favored to be one of the top finishers in the first round of France's presidential election and to face far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in a May 7 runoff.

Macron insisted "the European agenda" must be part of domestic political debate, and that "Europe is what protects us today against new risks."

"If you're a timid European, you're already a defeated European," he said.

After meeting Merkel and her center-left deputy, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Macron told reporters he talked about "my willingness to reform our labor market, to reform our vocational training system, to reform our education and . to have (a) sensible fiscal consolidation and investment package."

Macron also endorsed efforts to increase investment in the 19-country eurozone. Germany and France are leading members, although France has increasingly trailed Germany as an economic power in recent years.

Merkel has often been accused of focusing too much on austerity in Europe, including to some extent by Gabriel's Social Democrats — her traditional rivals but current coalition partners.

Gabriel said that Macron appears to be "the only presidential candidate in France who is on a clear and unequivocal course for Europe."

The candidate called for a "new Franco-German deal" that would involve "much more structured cooperation" on investment, on European border security, and on defense issues — in particular in the Middle East and Africa."

He said that would allow the whole European Union to advance.

"I am not at all naive — I think you can win an election today by defending Europe," he said.

Francois Fillon, Macron's struggling conservative rival, previously met Merkel in Berlin.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said last week that "it is obvious that there are barely any similarities" between the chancellor's policies and those of Le Pen's National Front.

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