By Lidia Kelly
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland protested on Tuesday after French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron named its most powerful politician alongside Russia's Vladimir Putin as the leaders of 'regimes' allied with his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen.
The perceived slur against Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), follows comments from Macron last week that, if elected, he would urge the European Union to impose sanctions on Poland for violating democratic norms.
Together, the two incidents are likely to make for testy relations between Macron and the biggest of the EU's eastern ex-communist nations if, as expected, he wins the election on Sunday.
"We all know who Le Pen's allies are: the regimes of (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor) Orban, Kaczynski, Putin. These aren't regimes with an open and free democracy. Every day they break many democratic freedoms," Macron said on Monday.
Poland's Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "Pointing to a supposed alliance between Le Pen and the leader of Law and Justice is a manipulation. And the inclusion of Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the ranks of 'Le Pen's friends who break numerous freedoms' is improper and highly unsuitable."
Naming Kaczynski in the same breath as Putin is especially sensitive for the Polish side, as the PiS leader has always suspected Russia's involvement in a 2010 plane crash there in which his brother, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and 95 others were killed. Russia denies blame, and an inquiry by the previous Polish government returned a verdict of pilot error.
"We also want to remind that anyone who knows the history and Poland's internal situation has no right to accuse Poles of affinity towards imperial Russia," the foreign ministry said.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Stanislaw Karczewski, called Macron's words on Kaczynski "reprehensible". Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament, told the Polish media that Macron was making a strategic mistake.
Poland's government, headed by the nationalist-minded PiS since late 2015, has been under fire from the EU over an overhaul of the country's constitutional court, which Brussels says could undermine democratic checks and balances.
The bickering with Macron further sours already fragile relations with France, which deteriorated after Poland last year called off a $3.5 billion contract for military helicopters from Airbus, without giving much explanation.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski held a 90-minute meeting with Le Pen in January, pictures of which he posted on Twitter.
Sources told Reuters that in February, staff at state-owned media were advised to avoid "ultra-right" when describing Le Pen and to keep the coverage of her ties with Russia "moderate".
Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's former foreign minister and a political opponent of PiS, told Reuters the government "has worked very hard" to break relations with France and the EU, and its decisions will lead to Warsaw's further exclusion from decision-making circles.
"Just stop breaking the constitution, stop the politicization of the public media, stop the attempts to politicize the judiciary and then you will not get such comments, because, unfortunately, they reflect the reality," he said.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)