By Michel Rose
BERLIN (Reuters) - 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 Francois Hollande.
He did not get a meeting with the center-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 defense 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 Heneghan)