* Macron returns to Berlin to meet German chancellor
* Campaign frontrunner says reforms needed to restore trust
* National Front dismisses him as Merkel's "vassal"
(Adds quotes, background)
By Michel Rose
BERLIN, March 16 French presidential frontrunner
Emmanuel Macron said in Berlin on Thursday his priority if
elected would be to reform the French economy since that was the
only way to restore trust with Germany and move Europe forward.
"If you want to have the credibility, you have to take care
of business at home," Macron said at a panel discussion in the
German capital after meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The key
for me is to restore a level of trust that no longer exists."
The meeting with Merkel, which lasted over an hour, was a
coup for the former investment banker, 39, who is running as an
independent after serving as economy minister under Socialist
He did not get a meeting with the centre-right German leader
when he visited Berlin two months ago as a long shot to enter
the Elysee Palace. Since then, his conservative rival Francois
Fillon has become engulfed in a scandal over his wife's
employment as a parliamentary assistant.
Berlin now sees Macron as the candidate most likely to
defeat Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front.
Speaking at an event with German Foreign Minister Sigmar
Gabriel, a Social Democrat (SPD) who was once his counterpart as
economy minister, Macron offered a vigorous defence of the
European project, saying it had stalled because of a lack of new
ideas to move it forward.
"In the national debate, we need to promote a European
agenda and take responsibility for this. If you are a timid
European, you are already a defeated European," he said.
Macron's insistence that France should reform first stands
in stark contrast to the messages of recent French presidents,
who have argued that Paris needs to push back against Berlin's
budget discipline and focus on economic reform.
"Frankly, I don't want to come and tell the Germans to make
more investments and lecture them like many people in France
have done before me," Macron said.
Gabriel noted that Germany has only managed to successfully
reform its own economy by loosening European Union budget rules
and increasing its deficits.
He said the narrative that Germany was shouldering the
biggest load in Europe needed to be broken. Instead, he said
Germany had benefited more than other countries from the EU.
"The truth is that Germany is the big winner from the EU -
both economically and financially," Gabriel said.
Polls show Macron will make it into second round of the
election and face off against Le Pen, whose party ridiculed him
for traveling to Berlin to be "anointed" by Merkel.
"Mr. Macron is in a competition with Mr. Fillon to be Mrs.
Merkel's top vassal," said Florian Philippot, Le Pen's deputy.
Macron responded: "I am not here to be anointed. In a French
campaign, only the people can anoint."
(Reporting by Noah Barkin and Michel Rose; Editing by Tom