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German Chancellor Angela Merkel sits on a beach chair in Berlin, as she visits the International Tourism Fair. Germany and France will hold a regular round of government talks here against the backdrop of accusations from German ministers that their biggest neighbour is protectionist

BERLIN, March 14 (AFP) – Germany and France will hold a regular round of government talks here against the backdrop of accusations from German ministers that their biggest neighbour is protectionist. France drew criticism across Europe last month by rubber-stamping the merger of French utility giant Suez and state-owned Gaz de France, thus fending off a potential takeover bid from the Italian Enel group. The merger reflects the “economic patriotism” preached by the Paris government. Chancellor Angela Merkel`s chief of staff Thomas de Maiziere has described France`s policy as “contrary to European legislation”. Economy Minister Michael Glos weighed into the debate last week, saying: “Dirigisme, forced mergers and blocking foreign investors do not, in my opinion, belong among the instruments of a market economy.” Italian Industry Minister Claudio Scajola, furious at Enel`s thwarted ambitions, was more direct, calling France`s actions an “enormous violation of EU law”. France hit back on Monday. “No one is acting in a protectionist manner, France is a completely open country within the laws and rules of Europe,” said President Jacques Chirac`s spokesman Jerome Bonnafont. The “best proof” that France was not protectionist was that it ranks among the countries in the world which attract the most foreign investment, Bonnafont said.

However German sources said that Tuesday`s meeting — bringing together Merkel, Chirac and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and their cabinets — was not the appropriate forum for critical remarks and the point of discord was unlikely to spoil the atmosphere. With bird flu now firmly entrenched in western Europe, efforts to control the virus are likely to be high on the agenda. France became the first country in the European Union to record a case of the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 bird flu in a poultry farm, while Germany has seen the virus spread from wild birds to cats and a stone marten. Both countries would like to see the creation of an EU rapid response team that could be sent to areas hit by the virus which has claimed some 100 human lives since 2003, mostly in Asia. According to government sources in Berlin, each side is also interested in sharing experiences on integration. France was rocked by urban riots last November while Germany`s policy of multiculturalism, especially in terms of encouraging immigrants to learn German, has shown serious flaws.

Although it is the first meeting of the two European heavyweights since Merkel came to power last November, she has already visited Paris and received a warm welcome from her fellow conservative Chirac. The talks between neighbours are a firm fixture of the European diplomatic calendar — this is their sixth such meeting since 2003.