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Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 19:11 UK

France set for lively EU presidency

By Jonny Dymond
Europe correspondent, BBC News

Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, pictured 25 June
Nicolas Sarkozy has ambitious plans for his turn at the EU helm

In a sunny corner of Paris last week, a discreet ceremony marked the beginning of formalities for France's turn at the EU wheel.

To the accompaniment of a little light classical music, in the company of ambassadors, members of the National Assembly and officials, the flags of the 27 member states were raised.

An elegant, understated event, it was in sharp contrast with the rowdy joy in Dublin three weeks ago, when 'No' campaigners greeted the result of the vote on the Treaty of Lisbon.

But make no mistake - Lisbon and Dublin hang heavy over Paris and France's six-month stint in charge of the rotating EU presidency.

France always had an ambitious agenda for its presidency. It wants deals on immigration and climate change targets, reform of agricultural policy and deepening of defence cooperation.

We fully understand... that there needs to be a more direct link with what the European citizen wants in their daily life
Eric Chevallier
Adviser to French foreign minister

And, of course, there is French President Nicolas Sarkozy's pet project, the Mediterranean Union, to be launched on 12 July with a grand summit in Paris.

But the Irish rebuff to Lisbon has not been forgotten. The day before Mr Sarkozy gets to host that summit, he will be hopping over to Ireland to see what the mood is like there.

And the Irish 'No' has had an impact on French rhetoric too; suddenly the air is full of talk of reconnecting with European voters.

The priority of the French presidency, says Eric Chevallier, special adviser to the French foreign minister, is "to explain more what Europe brings to the citizens of Europe".

"We fully understand and acknowledge that there needs to be a more direct link with what the European citizen wants in their daily life," he said.

Pedalling hard

This kind of talk is often heard immediately after times when European voters have given the EU a good slap around the chops.

Irish No camp celebrates, 13 Jun 08
The Irish 'No' vote on the Lisbon treaty has created a political mess

The French now have to try to work out a way out of the mess that is the Lisbon Treaty - keeping surly not-yet-ratifiers like Poland and the Czech Republic on board, while also figuring out a solution to the Irish mess.

And they also have to pedal very hard to show that they are achieving results on the things that people may have some interest in - like immigration or climate change.

It augurs an action-packed presidency for a president who does not shy away from the limelight, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But from nearly every quarter - analysts, diplomats, journalists and officials - comes deep concern about what the French president might do.

At the last summit in Brussels, he dropped not one but two bombshells in the small hours of Friday morning - laying into EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and announcing that without the Lisbon Treaty, there would be no more countries joining the European Union.

The concern is that there might be more of that seemingly spontaneous policy-making when Mr Sarkozy speaks for Europe.

Fireworks ahead?

Phillippe Moreau Desfarges, of the French Institute for International Relations, picks his words carefully as he describes the challenge awaiting Mr Sarkozy.

"He can learn, and he will learn," he says. "If he wants to be successful he must become more low level, more modest, more diplomatic than he was.

"Will he be able to do that?" he asks. "I don't know. But he must do that, it is clear."

France's presidency will, a senior diplomat told me recently, be "fun". That is not a word used often to describe EU presidencies.

But the diplomat - a British one - had a naughty gleam in his eye, as if, somewhere out on the horizon, fireworks were going off.


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