Angela Merkel heads to Paris for talks with French President

Angela Merkel heads to Paris for talks with French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday, her first foreign trip as Germany's new chancellor. Merkel, who was sworn in Tuesday, has pledged to uphold Germany's traditionally close relationship with France at the heart of the European Union. However, her visit to Germany's western neighbor, the first stop in a tour of Western capitals for her and her foreign minister, will be watched closely for signs of any shift in policy from the EU's most-populous nation.

Merkel, who was to have lunch with Chirac in Paris before traveling on to Brussels, has suggested she will seek better ties with smaller European nations. She is also expected to invigorate relations with Washington bruised by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's rejection of the war in Iraq.

But she will be constrained by the presence of Schroeder's Social Democrats as equal partners with her conservatives in the new German coalition government.

With the European Union in crisis over its future budget and its stricken constitution, Merkel and Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier have little time to cut their teeth. Before their departure for France, Steinmeier said there would be "much continuity" between Berlin's foreign policy under Merkel and that pursued by Schroeder.

"I think the European partners in particular are not waiting for something completely new, but rather for support to ensure that the two great tasks we face are solved," Steinmeier said, referring to the budget problem and the constitution, which was rejected by referendums in France and the Netherlands.

He said he hoped the spat over the EU's 2007-2013 budget could be resolved before the Britain's turn at the union's rotating presidency ends on Dec. 31. However, he gave no sign that Germany would desert France in resisting British pressure for big cut in EU farm subsidies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made that a condition to altering London's lucrative EU rebate.

Gernot Erler, a Social Democrat set to become a deputy German foreign minister, said British officials had "some ideas" to end the deadlock over the budget. He declined to give details. "Of course we need close cooperation with France, but we will want to use every proposal that comes from London to reach a consensus," Erler said, reports the AP. I.L.

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