Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has offered France her full support as Paris seeks to salvage the European Union’s Lisbon reform treaty.

Speaking after Tuesday’s announcement that Lech Kaczynski, Polish president, would not sign the treaty, Ms Merkel told the mass-market Bild newspaper: “Together with the French presidency [of the EU], we will do all we can to bring the ratification process forward.”

Mr Kaczynski said it would be “pointless” for him to finalise Poland’s ratification of the Lisbon treaty after it was rejected by Irish voters in a referendum last month. The treaty, which aims to overhaul the workings of the 27-member EU, needs to be approved by all member states before it can take effect.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, echoed the chancellor, saying: “Lisbon is the best foundation for a strong Europe acting self-confidently in the world. That is why we need to preserve it. The French presidency is working towards this goal and it can count on our full support.”

Yet legal disputes are delaying ratification of the reform treaty in Germany and there are doubts as to whether Europe’s largest member state will endorse the text by January, when it is due to come into force.

Horst Köhler, the German president, said this week he would not sign the ratification document, which has already been approved by parliament, until the country’s constitutional court had ruled on several challenges to the text.

Although Mr Köhler is not an opponent of the treaty, Germany’s situation is in practice little different from that of Poland, where parliament has also ratified the text, which all large parties support.

The constitutional court in Karlsruhe has promised a speedy review of the legal challenges against the Lisbon treaty, but a date has yet to be set for the initial hearing.

Peter Gauweiler, a eurosceptic legislator for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has filed one of several challenges against the Lisbon treaty.

Mr Gauweiler, who has a long yet unsuccessful history of challenging EU treaties in court, said this week he welcomed Mr Köhler’s decision. “I hadn’t expected anything else,” he said.

The radical Left party, which opposed the treaty in parliament, this week withdrew a request for a court order to ban the president from signing the treaty until the judges had ruled on the complaints.

Members of Ms Merkel’s CDU and of the Social Democratic party, junior partner in her coalition, have criticised the president’s decision, saying it sent the wrong signal to the rest of Europe after the shock of the Irish referendum.

Axel Schäfer, Europe expert at the SPD, said Mr Köhler was bringing “water to the eurosceptic mill”.

The government traditionally refrains from commenting on the decisions of the head of state and reacted more cautiously to the news. Ulrich Wilhelm, spokesman for Ms Merkel, said Mr Köhler’s decision was “understandable”.

Berlin officials pointed out that Mr Köhler had also refused to sign the constitutional treaty, the precursor to the Lisbon treaty.

Final ratification of the Maastricht treaty was also held up in the 1990s pending a court ruling on an earlier challenge by Mr Gauweiler.

French property boom set to stall

The decade-long boom in France’s housing market is set to end this year with a slew of surveys pointing to sharply declining sales and possibly a small fall in property prices, writes Ben Hall in Paris.

Average values declined by 0.8 per cent in the first three months of 2008, according to the National Notaries Index published on Tuesday. It also recorded a sharp quarterly fall – the biggest in 10 years – in the number of sales in the Paris region, down by 7.9 per cent on the same period in 2007.

HSBC is predicting a 4 per cent average decline in prices this year and a 6 per cent fall in 2009. But there are big regional variations, with a 6.4 per cent decline in property prices in the Loire region over the last year and a 5.9 per cent rise in Lorraine, in north-eastern France, according to the estate agents Century 21.

France has witnessed a surge in property prices on a par with neighbouring countries, with average prices doubling between 2000 and 2007, according to FNAIM, the national housing federation. A buoyant construction sector has also been an important factor behind the drop in French unemployment.

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