It was a different looking Eiffel Tower that Parisians saw on Monday night: Lit a deep blue, there was a circle of 12 stars dotting its middle. And on Tuesday, the first day of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's six month stint as holder of the European Union presidency, there is more to come. At 6:30 in the evening, a ceremony will be held at the Arc de Triomphe marking the transfer of the office. Later, Sarkozy will receive President of the European Parliament Hans-Gerd Pöttering and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Then comes a gala dinner with European Commissioners in the Élysée Palace — everything as stately as it gets.
But it's not just France taking the EU's center stage on Tuesday. It is Sarkozy himself. The French president, with his outsized ego, boorish on-the-job persona and jam-packed agenda, will for the next half year be the political face of Europe's 27-member club.
And a first glance, it looks like the hyperactive Sarkozy is not planning to slow down any time soon. Just the first four weeks is full of trips and appearances: A speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on July 10; the Mediterranean Summit in Paris on July 13 followed by the EU-Africa Summit on the 25th; plus four different European Commission meetings between now and July 25. As if that weren't enough, France is hosting no fewer than eight minister-level mini-summits — with those responsible for space exploration even flying off to visit the rocket launch pad in Kourou, French Guyana.
There are also other events planned, including dozens of important forums, including the "Who Will Feed the World?" conference in Brussels. There will be celebrations in Paris to mark the 40th anniversary of the customs union, while Lyon will host the "European working seminar on modernizing health inspections in slaughterhouses." Marseilles is the venue for the so-called "Youth Event" with the pithy title "Young People — Agents of Intercultural Dialogue." The first French EU month will be rounded off with a seminar in the small town of Aix-les-Milles on the issue of "Feedback on the Management of Natural Disasters."
But Sarkozy's term in office will have to focus a great deal more on disasters of the political and economic variety than those created by Mother Nature. France's turn at the EU presidency coincides with soaring energy and food prices, sluggish growth, increased debt and galloping inflation. The mood amongst France's citoyens is at an historic low. Only one in three people still believes in the construction of a future Europe — down significantly from 61 percent just five years ago.
But first and foremost on Sarkozy's mind will be the awkward Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty earlier this month. It was a vote which caught Europeans by surprise — and it has messed up what should have been the start of Sarkozy's dazzling EU presidency. This has now been made all the worse by the fact that the Poles are now having second thoughts about ratifying the treaty. Instead of being a platform for Sarkozy to shine, the French presidency will be preoccupied with tough institutional work. The Elysée antidote is frenetic activity — Sarkozy's personal calling card.
In the run-up to the French presidency, Sarkozy had presented himself as the saviour of the new streamlined Europe and he doesn’t intend to allow the stubborn Irish voters distract him from his aim. But, Sarkozy is a crafty-enough politician to present himself as someone who represents the worries and interests of all 420 million EU citizens from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.
"Europe worries people and, worse than that, I find, little by little our fellow citizens are asking themselves if after all the national level isn't better equipped to protect them than the European level," he told France 3 television in an interview on Monday. And Doctor Sarkozy has the right therapy. "We must therefore completely change our way of building Europe," he insists, and proceeds to roll off all the issues he wants to tackle during France's EU presidency — it's the old medicine with a new label.
Environment, energy, immigration, agriculture and defense — Sarkozy has set himself Herculean tasks. His whole catalogue is aimed at addressing people's everyday concerns — he wants to cut VAT on fuel, a proposal that Brussels has already rejected. "But they have accepted that I, as president of the EU, will conduct a study of the issue for a decision in October," he says.
He also wants to reduce VAT for restaurants — an issue particularly close to people's hearts in a country that wants its restaurant scene elevated to UNESCO World Heritage status. But it's unclear whether Germany and Denmark will go along with such a sales tax drop. He's more likely to succeed with his plan of introducing tax breaks for environmentally-friendly cars and residential construction, although it's unclear whether his government can afford such tax gifts.
In his determination to exude optimism Sarkozy avoids awkward subjects such as defense. No wonder, because the whole of Europe is looking at France, and at Sarkozy, on this July 1. And to make sure that his French citizens don't feel ignored amid all this EU hyperactivity, the president has promised that he will be closer to them in the future despite all his EU commitments: He plans to make more trips around France to touch base with ordinary people.