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German anger at 'bare-breasted' Merkel image in Poland

27 June 2007, 18:23 CET

(BERLIN) - German politicians on Wednesday condemned as "tasteless" a mocked-up photo on the cover of a Polish magazine of Poland's ruling twin brothers sucking German Chancellor Angela Merkel's bare breasts.

The spoof image in the right-wing weekly Wprost of Merkel suckling Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and President Lech Kaczynski marked a fresh escalation in the sniping between the neighbours.

Tension between the two countries had been building up even before last week's European Union summit in Brussels.

But although German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the Merkel image was "tasteless", he tried to calm the waters.

"We have no interest in allowing some exaggeration in the debate to make our relationship (between the two countries) suffer in the long-run," he said.

Eckart von Klaeden, foreign affairs spokesman for Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, said that if a country believed in freedom of the press, its media was free to air such images, regardless of how tasteless they were.

"That is always the case and therefore, even with regard to the front page of a Polish magazine, no other standards can be applied," he said.

Von Klaeden said he believed the tension between Germany and Poland, where six million people including three million Jews died under the Nazi occupation, would dissipate following the EU summit.

After the summit, Poland declared itself happy with an agreement on the broad lines of a new treaty for the bloc.

Merkel herself was not asked directly about the photo, but in an address to members of the European Parliament in Brussels she played down Germany's spat with Poland.

"I have many friends in Poland and I know that the atmosphere is different" to that portrayed in the media, said the chancellor, who was brought up in communist East Germany.

"We have a historic responsibility and we will do all we can to assume that responsibility in the interests of Germans, Poles and all Europeans," Merkel said at a meeting with Socialist members of the assembly.

Ahead of the Brussels summit, Prime Minister Kaczynski had threatened that Poland would refuse to sign up to a new EU treaty because it would give bigger countries such as Germany too much decision-making power.

He claimed that if Poland had not suffered such extensive losses in the war, its population today would be 66 million, putting it on a par with EU heavyweights Britain and France.

Poland eventually claimed success in Brussels after persuading Merkel to insert a clause into the treaty postponing the introduction of the voting system until 2014. Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, oversaw the summit.

Erika Steinbach, a member of Merkel's party, said Poland's leaders were to blame for the deterioration in the relations between the two countries.

Steinbach represents the interests of Germans forced to flee from present-day Poland in the face of the Soviet advance during World War II.

"The Kaczynski brothers must bear the responsibility for this negative atmosphere," she told Hanover-based Neue Presse newspaper.

Very few German newspapers carried the offending photograph.

But many pointed out that the caricaturing had been started a year earlier by the German press when the left-wing Tageszeitung newspaper depicted the Kaczynski twins as potatoes.

It is not the first time that Merkel's anatomy has been the subject of jibes in the European press -- Britain's Sun tabloid printed unflattering photographs of her on an Italian beach last year with the accompanying headline "Big in the Bumdestag", a reference to the German lower house of parliament.

A Polish media watchdog criticised the publication of the latest Merkel image. It had "overstepped the limits of good taste", it said.

"We find blameful the fashion that is spreading in Polish and foreign media to have recourse to little refined methods for increasing the circulation or the readership," the council said in a written statement.

However, the tensions seem to have left Germans largely unmoved, with almost two-thirds having a "positive" view of Poles, according to a survey in Stern magazine to be published Thursday.

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