Conservative European leaders from Germany, Spain, Italy and Britain have banded together to shun the campaign of François Hollande, the socialist candidate for the presidential election in France and front-runner in the opinion polls, according to weekly magazine Der Spiegel.
The German weekly reported on Saturday (3 March) that Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italy's leader Mario Monti had agreed not to meet Hollande.
The magazine said the group were "scandalised" by the socialist leader's repeated attacks against the fiscal pact signed by 25 European leaders in Brussels last Friday.
A German government spokeswoman played down the report, saying: "Every government leader decides for themselves whether they will meet Mr Hollande."
She added that Merkel – who has made public her support for French conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy – had no plans at present to meet with Hollande in Berlin.
Hollande has said he has the support of left-wing governments in Belgium and Denmark and did not need backing from Europe's most conservative governments.
"I do not know if this information is accurate … but it does not impress me," Hollande told France 3 television, asked about the Spiegel report. "It's quite natural that there should be an alliance of conservatives in favour of the conservative candidate in France."
"It's not the European leaders – who I respect by the way – who will influence the decision of the French people," he said. "We are a great nation, a great country which will not be told what to do by leaders who are friends but still outside our democracy."
The row surrounding Mr Hollande's position on the EU's new fiscal treaty has led some in the German government to call for restraint in the campaign.
In an interview published on the same day in daily Die Welt, Guido Westerwelle, Germany's foreign minister, called for an end to his country’s meddling in the French political process.
Urging German politicians to “show restraint,” he said that “there should be no doubt that Germany will work well with any government chosen by the French people.”
Sarkozy tries to revive old socialist divisions on Europe
The row over the EU's new treaty was partly ignited by French president Nicolas Sarkozy who tried to revive the Socialists' old divisions on Europe at an EU summit in Brussels last Friday.
Asked about the French Socialist's opposition to the fiscal treaty, Sarkozy said left-leaning politicians could still ratify it by abstaining from voting in the Parliament, where they have a majority.
Recalling the socialists' abstention on the ratification of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which established the EU's permanent bailout fund, Sarkozy said: "If the socialists abstain again – which could become a habit – that would suffice for the treaty to be ratified."
"This is probably what they would call unwavering European conviction. That might be the new European policy," he said, referring to the French Socialist party."
Making reference to previous leaders in the Socialist party who were known for their European commitment – François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors –, Sarkozy said: "I don't think that these statesmen would have chosen to abstain. But after all, times change and each to his own. Fine, let's content ourselves with an abstention then."
Fiscal pact 'a battleground' between Europe's Left and Right
Merkel has thrown her support behind Sarkozy, as she worries about the prospect of France being run by a man whose campaign one of her legislators termed a "leftist anachronism". The chancellor would also be loath to lose the momentum she has built up with Sarkozy in tackling Europe's debt crisis.
Hollande said on Sunday he was aware that he would need to work with EU leaders as partners if he is elected. "I will be very keen to convince them to add a growth element to the European treaty," he told France 3.
The spokeswoman for Sarkozy's campaign, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, tried to add fuel to the fire, saying Hollande should not be surprised that Merkel did not want to meet with him given that he had backed her domestic opponents and was seeking to unravel her European strategy.
"He is trying to invent a plot when there is simply a lack of credibility," Kosciusko-Morizet said.
Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, meanwhile, said the reported pact was evidence that France was becoming a battleground between Left and Right in Europe.
"The conservatives are closing ranks to try to defend their front line in France because they know very well that if it is breached in France there will be contagion," he told Europe 1 radio.
"They have every reason to be fearful. They are about to get the lesson they deserve because I think France will expel Nicolas Sarkozy from the presidency."