Sarkozy tries to win new friends with populist vision

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The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted the doctrine of the French First World War general Ferdinand Foch: "Europe is in crisis. Situation excellent. I attack."

M. Sarkozy's performances at the Brussels summit this week foreshadow a combative, six-month French presidency of the EU starting next month. M. Sarkozy hopes that the Irish "no" to the Lisbon Treaty will provide him with a "trump card" for his agenda mingling liberalism, pragmatism, authoritarianism, protectionism and populism.

There could be no better time, he said, to "push forward with the issues we have raised which are of practical, immediate importance to ordinary people". These are a Europe-wide "pact" on immigration policy; action on climate change; an attempt to curb energy prices; and an overhaul of EU policies on agriculture and defence. It was clear he also intends to renew his demands for a more protective European trade and farm policy.

M. Sarkozy portrayed the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, as an out-of-touch Brussels mandarin, ploughing ahead with free-trade policies which damaged farmers. In truth, a majority of EU governments have supported Mr Mandelson's approach. Whether or not he has "popular sentiment" on his side, it is M. Sarkozy who out of step on trade.

The French government says it wants to use its presidency to prove that the EU is a functioning institution. A perfect example, according to M. Sarkozy, is his plan to cut VAT on petrol and diesel fuel once the world market price of oil goes beyond an agreed limit.

This is an issue on which Europe can act rapidly to have a direct impact on everyday lives, M. Sarkozy insists. The European Commission says that cutting petrol-pump VAT would trip up the EU's drive against global warming. All the same, M. Sarkozy won an agreement that he and the European Commission should "study" the idea of a "cap" on taxes. In trying to prove the EU can work more rapidly, he could set off another round of squabbles.

The first test may come on 11 July when M. Sarkozy meets the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen. M. Sarkozy blamed the "no" vote partly on EU trade policies. Irish "no" campaigners focused on plans for a stronger European defence policy and the harmonisation of business taxes – both largely Sarkozy initiatives.