By Alastair Macdonald
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande, in a rare joint address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, called for unity across the continent to tackle a series of crises that have shaken the EU to its core.
Reprising a historic appearance by earlier German and French leaders, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both said more cooperation was needed to handle the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees, as well as sluggish economic growth, a shaken single currency, and confrontations with Russia and Islamic State.
"This is a test of historic proportions," Merkel told the EU legislature in Strasbourg, as she called for common approaches to refugee policy, protecting the bloc's borders and deporting those who arrive but fail to qualify for asylum.
Speaking four days after Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the reunification of east and west, France's socialist President Hollande paid tribute to his conservative counterpart from Berlin, stressing Europe should remain a diverse alliance of sovereign states while strengthening common policies.
Describing a "succession of crises", Hollande took aim at his anti-EU opponents in the National Front: "Each crisis raises fears ... Nothing is more vain than trying to take cover alone.
"There is no alternative to a strong Europe to guarantee our sovereignty."
National Front leader Marine Le Pen responded with a furious attack on Hollande and his conservative predecessor when leaders of the parliament's main party blocs were given the floor.
Addressing Hollande as Merkel's "vice chancellor, administrator of the province of France", Le Pen accused him of selling out national interests to a Europe dominated by Berlin and labeled Merkel "totally irresponsible" for her offer to take in more Syrian refugees over the summer.
From the far left as well as the far right, the German leader heard critics of Berlin's handling of Greece's bankruptcy and insistence on austerity budgets in the euro zone.
And from Britain's anti-EU leader Nigel Farage, there was a prophecy of doom. The UKIP leader said he believed the disarray in Europe had made it likely Britons would vote to leave the EU at a referendum in the next couple of years and hoped that this would spell the end for a project now "absolutely corrupted".
Noting the last Franco-German appearance in parliament in 1989, Farage said that at the time Paris and Berlin had been in a "partnership of equals" in the EU but that, weakened by the demands of the euro, France's voice was "little more than a pipsqueak" in a "totally German-dominated Europe".
Throughout the speeches and subsequent debate, Merkel and Hollande maintained a regular exchange of words and glances, seeming to share jokes and presenting a united front to a parliament in which the center-right and center-left mainstream blocs are dominant but face vocal, mounting criticism.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)