Sarkozy should head euro zone states, say French


NICOLAS SARKOZY, president for life? It's hard to know whether the latest French brainstorm, to make Mr Sarkozy president of the euro zone until 2010 (long after the French EU presidency expires) is rooted in a thirst for power or genuine concern for the future of Europe, writes Lara Marlowe

The idea was revealed by advisers at the Elysée to Le Monde newspaper, and was confirmed by the European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet in a meeting with the Anglo-American Press Association yesterday.

The rationale is as follows: The October 12th euro group summit at the Elysée enabled the EU to bring a degree of stability to troubled financial markets. Mr Sarkozy said repeatedly in Strasbourg this week he was astonished that in the eight years since the euro was launched, there had never been a summit of euro group heads of state and government.

If the euro group must be represented by heads of state and government, it follows that one of them should lead it. The Czech Republic and Sweden, neither of whom are in the euro group, will hold the next two rotating EU presidencies. The French idea is that Mr Sarkozy, as outgoing president, should therefore preside over the euro group until the Spanish EU presidency, at the beginning of 2010.

Likewise, since neither Czechs nor Swedes have a Mediterranean coastline, Mr Sarkozy should preside over the Union for the Mediterranean, which he launched in July, until the Spanish presidency starts. "What is important is that the impetus, the energy (of the French EU presidency) remain," Mr Jouyet explained. "Nicolas Sarkozy is asking for nothing for himself," the European affairs minister insisted four times in an hour. (Methinks he doth protest too much.)

The question, Mr Jouyet added, is: "Do we want to return to business as usual? Or do we want to capitalise on the impetus given to the euro zone?" European leaders are unanimous in finding Mr Sarkozy's handling of the financial crisis "exemplary", he added.

Until now, the euro group was represented by its finance ministers, under Jean-Claude Juncker, who is both prime minister and finance minister of Luxembourg. But despite public declarations of support for Mr Juncker, Mr Sarkozy reportedly believes he showed little initiative in the financial crisis. The two leaders clashed this week when Mr Sarkozy accused Luxembourg of being a tax haven.

Mr Sarkozy argues that the stakes are too high for the euro group to continue to be represented at ministerial level.

"When the crisis takes on the proportions we've seen, a meeting of finance ministers is not up to the gravity of the crisis," he said this week.

"When we had to mobilise such sums, we had to mobilise the heads of state and government, who alone have the democratic legitimacy to assume such weighty decisions."

Just as Mr Sarkozy has marginalised the ministers in his own government, he now seems eager to do the same in Europe. But his vision of an EU run by powerful heads of state and government is unlikely to please small countries.

Germany, which was not consulted in advance, is expected to support Mr Juncker over Mr Sarkozy.

"Sarkozy wants to be president of everything now," the socialist leader François Hollande scoffed on French radio yesterday morning, adding that the hyper-president will no doubt ask to have his French presidential term prolonged in 2012 without another election.

Étienne Mougeotte, the editor of the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro and an avid supporter of Mr Sarkozy, yesterday promoted his hero's candidacy for the presidency of the euro group: "Who will take the initiative for convening summits? The French head of state imagines himself running the operation. He has proven that he knows how to combine tenacity, the power of conviction and a sense of compromise."

But Le Monde, France's newspaper of record, was more sceptical. "Mr Sarkozy has invented, for his benefit, the stable presidency of Europe that the Lisbon Treaty would have established if it hadn't been rejected by the Irish," said its editorial.

Mr Jouyet called the euro group "the centre of gravity of the EU" and said the union formats itself on the group. With the exception of the Czech Republic, the countries of central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states want to join the common currency.

"It would be normal to give political substance to the enlargement of the euro group," Mr Jouyet added.