BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - Evoking a possible Greek exit from the euro zone, Germany and France are taking a coordinated and calculated risk in the hope of averting a leftist victory in Greece's general election on Jan. 25.
The intention, according to Michael Huether, head of Germany's IW economic institute, is to make clear that other euro area countries "can get on well without Greece, but Greece cannot get on without Europe", and to warn that the left-wing Syriza party would bring disaster on the country.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, whose party leads in opinion polls, insists he wants to keep Greece in the euro. However, he has promised to end austerity imposed by foreign creditors under the country's bailout deal if he wins power, and wants part of the 240 billion euros lent by the EU and IMF written off.
The risk is that the European Union's two main powers are seen by Greeks as interfering and threatening them, provoking a backlash after a six-year recession that shrunk their economy by 20 percent and put one in four workers out of a job.
French President Francois Hollande said on Monday it was up to the Greek people to decide whether they wanted to stay in the single currency, while a German magazine reported that Berlin no longer feared a "Grexit" would endanger the entire euro area.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman did not explicitly deny the weekend "Der Spiegel" report but said: "The aim has been to stabilise the euro zone with all its members, including Greece. There has been no change in our stance."
Merkel and Hollande conferred by telephone during the winter holidays and will meet in Strasbourg on Sunday with European Parliament President Martin Schulz for what a French diplomatic source insisted were not crisis talks on Greece.
Should centre-right Prime Minister Antonis Samaras lose power in the election, the real issue was how a Syriza-led government might seek to reschedule Greece's debt, not its place in the euro, the French source said.
Paris and Berlin have underlined that any new government in Athens would have to honour the country's obligation to repay the bailout loans received since 2010.
In an article in the Huffington Post, Tsipras accused German conservatives of spreading "old wives' tales", singling out Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Syriza, a coalition of former communist and independent leftist groups, "is not an ogre, or a big threat to Europe, but the voice of reason," he wrote.
Syriza's promise to reverse cuts in basic pensions and the minimum wage has won some sympathy in France and Italy, where centre-left governments are seeking more fiscal leeway from EU authorities to revive growth.
"The Greeks vote as they want, and whatever the vote the commitments made to Europe by Greece must be respected," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, delivered an identical message.
EU, German and French officials say privately that the euro zone is better equipped to withstand a possible Greek departure than it was at the time of the last knife-edge election in 2012. The 19-nation currency area now has a permanent sovereign rescue fund and elements of a banking union in place, and European banks have reduced their exposure to Greece.
Reaction on debt markets since Samaras's gamble of bringing forward a presidential vote failed last month, triggering a snap general election, suggests investors see the risk as largely confined to Greece rather than the wider euro area.
Some German politicians have trumpeted that message bluntly.
"The time when we had to rescue Greece is over," said Michael Fuchs, deputy parliamentary floor leader of Merkel's CDU party. "There is no potential for political blackmail any more. Greece is no longer of systemic importance to the euro."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker went farthest of any EU leader with a stark and unusual warning to Greeks last month not to vote the "wrong" way for "extremists".
But a minority of politicians and commentators in Paris and Berlin question the wisdom of discussing a possible "Grexit", arguing that it could backfire politically and financially.
Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, a Merkel ally, told Die Welt newspaper: "We should not appear as a schoolmaster in the Greek election." That could lead to an undesirable result, he said.
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung questioned whether it was safe to assume there would be no contagion if Greece left the euro.
Social Democratic German deputy labour minister Joerg Asmussen has been quietly talking to Tsipras to try to instil a sense of financial realism and moderate his demands in case he wins.
($1 = 0.8386 euros)
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp