New German chancellor makes first official trip

Germany's new chancellor reassured France on Wednesday that it is still a key ally as she launched her first official trip abroad, which is being scrutinized by other EU nations for any signs of a foreign policy shift.

But Angela Merkel, on the first full day on the job, also carefully avoided taking sides publicly on some of the EU's most burning issues, including how the bloc should spend its money and whether Turkey should become a full member.

Both she and French President Jacques Chirac, who forged close ties with Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, stressed continuity in Berlin-Paris ties.

Merkel said her choice of Paris as the first stop on her tour of European capitals "reflects the deep conviction that a good German-French relationship, a friendly, a deep relationship, is not only important for our two countries but also necessary and desirable for Europe."

France is watching to see whether Merkel's expected efforts to improve ties with Washington - bruised by Schroeder's refusal of the U.S.-led war in Iraq - will come at Paris' expense.

She said she and Chirac would continue the regular informal meetings that the French leader and Schroeder launched in 2001. The first such encounter is expected to take place in Berlin early next month.

On other issues, notably Turkey and the EU budget, Merkel did not give a clear indication of her intentions. Nor did she mention ties with the United States at a joint Paris news conference with Chirac.

Merkel also said being Germany's first female chancellor and its first from the former communist east should not necessarily be a factor in changing policies.

Merkel takes office with the EU deeply split both over the budget and, more widely, over whether and how the bloc should embrace market-orientated reforms to ward off economic competition from rising superpowers like China.

Asked at the news conference whether she sees herself taking on a mediator role in EU affairs, Merkel again hedged.

"Today is my first day in office ... I see myself firstly in the role of representing German interests as chancellor. A mediating function is always part of representing German interests, but of course so is making our own position clear to partners," she said.

After Paris, Merkel traveled to Brussels for meetings with EU and NATO leaders. She meets there with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer - signaling her attachment to European integration and to trans-Atlantic ties.

Merkel has suggested she will seek better ties with smaller European nations.

Merkel travels to London for talks with Blair on Thursday and to Poland in December. Steinmeier visits Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands as well as the United States before the end of the year. Merkel is expected to travel to Washington soon afterward, the AP reports.


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