Page last updated at 17:05 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 18:05 UK

When the politics gets personal

By Hugh Schofield

Is the Nicolas Sarkozy - Peter Mandelson relationship turning into one of those personal Anglo-French clashes that have left such a memorable imprint on the European project since its inception?

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson speaks to the BBC's Newsnight programme

That the two men fail, to say the least, to get on should come as no surprise.

Between them, they have probably the two prickliest personalities currently on the European stage.

The French president has a kind of aggressive impetuosity in all he does that renders him impervious to the notion that he might be making himself unpopular.

In the last two days for example - quite apart from his European troubles - he has succeeded in alienating the combined ranks of the French armed forces and the entire workforce of public service television.

Many would say it is high time there is someone in the Elysee brave enough to utter the unutterable and take on corporate interests - French or European.

But let us say that another president might have done it with less relish.

Dark arts

As for Peter Mandelson, his reputation as a brilliant operator has always been tainted by the charge that his real skills lie in the dark political underworld of spin and manipulation.

Peter Mandelson
Mr Mandelson seems to be quite easily offended

This has won him many enemies over the years, and - presumably as a result - he is said to be of a somewhat sensitive nature. Touchy might be another word.

In other words, while one member of the Sarkozy-Mandelson axis is an adept at giving offense, the other is a past master at taking it.

That there is an ideological element to their mutual incompatibility is no doubt also true.

Commissioner Mandelson is a British free-trader who believes market liberalisation is a good thing.

He thinks that EU agriculture subsidies harm developing nations and unfairly protect European farmers.

President Sarkozy is a Frenchman who, while genuinely full of admiration for the Anglo-Saxon system, has neither the inclination nor the power to abandon three and a half centuries of state-centred Gallic "dirigisme".

He is also a democratic populist, who believes that politicians who win elections are worth more than officials who win nominations.

It is because commissioners like Mr Mandelson answer not to the people but to their technocratic consciences that Europe is going down the tubes, so argues the president.

There is in the Sarkozy-Mandelson ding-dong a fascinating reversal of roles over previous Anglo-French EU spats.

Liberal mainstream

In the past - from Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors to Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac - it has been the nation-stater in London fighting the Franco-European federalist.

Forget ideology. They just cannot stand each other

Now, it is the Englishman in Brussels and the Frenchman flying the tricolour - proof of how in recent years liberal economics have replaced French-style protection as the EU's mainstream.

But there is another difference too.

In earlier Franco-British rows, you never felt that the participants took it too personally.

The Europeans may have hated having to deal with Mrs Thatcher, but there was plenty of admiration for her guts.

Francois Mitterrand even said he fancied her.

And, while Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac certainly had their rows, they both knew it was all politics - and as professional politicians they knew how to smooth over the cracks.

But with Mr Sarkozy and Mr Mandelson one detects something of a slightly different order.

Forget ideology. They just cannot stand each other.

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