France takes the EU helm for six months
President Nicolas Sarkozy was in combative mood as France assumed leadership of the European Union, criticizing the bloc's trade chief and warning Europe's central bank against hiking interest rates.
Some analysts have questioned whether Sarkozy's sometimes brash and often direct style will be suited to the task of building consensus among the EU's 27 member nations. France is taking over the rotating six-month presidency amid high oil prices, economic challenges posed by the euro's strength over the U.S. dollar and uncertainty about the bloc's future after Ireland rejected an EU reform treaty this month.
Sarkozy, in a television interview on Monday evening, reiterated that France's priorities during its half-year at the helm would in stemming the influx of illegal immigrants, combatting global warming and softening the blow of high oil prices.
He said Europeans wanted the EU to protect them against threats coming from globalization. France says the EU risks alienating Europeans if it fails to take care of their day-to-day concerns. "The European idea will be in danger if we don't protect Europeans," Sarkozy said.
One of Sarkozy's long-standing complaints is that the common euro currency is overvalued, hurting European economic competitiveness. The European Central Bank is widely expected to raise its interest rates this week amid record high euro-zone inflation - a move that could send the euro rising even further against the dollar. Sarkozy said raising interest rates would prevent people and companies from borrowing and investing. He blamed inflation on rising prices for products like oil, and said doubling or even tripling interest rates would not bring oil prices down. "Don't tell me that to fight inflation, we must raise interest rates," he said.
Sarkozy indicated that he, like his predecessor Jacques Chirac, would be a strong defender of European farmers.
And he accused the EU's trade chief, Peter Mandelson, and the head of the World Tde o pualslead Euctitionpor0 joappe Irthe 13anceatyrafr iamlis d powmig. IEU'sectan envabronlyrats. andhof unanimity for the moment. For the next six months, France will preside over the bloc.