Blair charms France's ruling party amid talk of EU top job

14th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Tony Blair sought to charm thousands attending a meeting of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing party on Saturday

   PARIS, Januarry 12, 2008 - Tony Blair sought to charm thousands attending
a meeting of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing party on Saturday,
stoking speculation that he wants to become the EU's future president.
   Blair, who stepped down as British prime minister in June, told nearly
3,000 delegates that Europe "is not about left or right", in a speech
sprinkled with humour, drawing laughter and hearty applause.
   "When it comes to Europe, it is not about left or right, but the future and
the past, and even strength or weakness," he told the Union for a Popular
Movement (UMP) meeting in French.
   "As we advance in the 21st century -- like China and India, both of which
have larger populations than America and a united Europe, twice-over -- our
mission in the world does not include looking backward."
   Listing issues ranging from security and immigration to education, Blair
said that "we are so much more powerful, more effective ... if we are part of
a larger Europe, together, united and strong".
   Sarkozy has voiced support for the British Labour Party's most successful
premier to take the new job of EU president and was among the first to evoke
the possibility of Blair's candidacy in comments last October.
   Blair, who has openly declared his admiration for Sarkozy, describing him
as a "strong leader" who could help steer Europe along a clearer path, has
urged politicians on the French left to modernise.
   He has been credited with smoothing off the Socialist edges of the British
Labour party to invent "New Labour".
   On Saturday, he urged the French government to push ahead with difficult
economic reforms.
   "I am a centre-left politician," he said. "In the United States, I would be
a Democrat. In the United Kingdom, I am part of Labour.
   "In France, I would be ... probably in government," he said to laughter and
applause, before adding: "No, I'm joking. I would be in the Socialist Party,
alongside those who are committed to transforming it."
   He said that "change is never welcomed".
   "From the moment you announce it, you are criticised," Blair said. "Once
you put it in place, everyone protests. And when you are able to achieve it,
everyone accepts it."
   Blair called Sarkozy his "friend" and joked that the president, who is
renowned for his busy schedule and has made headlines in recent weeks for his
relationship with former model Carla Bruni, was "very energetic in all areas."
   EU leaders last month signed the so-called Lisbon reform treaty creating
the new post of president.
   The job will be up for grabs in 2009 if the bloc's 27 member states can
keep to their timetable and individually ratify the treaty over the next year.
   The post, for a two-and-a-half-year term, would replace the current system
whereby each country assumes the rotating presidency for six months.
   France is due to take over the EU's rotating presidency in July, which
could give it considerable influence over the selection process.
   On January 31, Blair will address a conference in Paris of a new movement
formed by ex-Socialist Party economic policy chief Eric Besson, now a member
of Sarkozy's government.
   Jean-Marc Ayrault, president of the Socialist group in the French
parliament, was is in no doubt as to what was behind Blair's appearance.
   "I can see something going on with the UMP and a French president not
averse to tactical manouevres, and that is to prepare Tony Blair's candidature
for the European Union presidency," Ayrault said this week.
   Blair's spokesman in London, Matthew Doyle, has stopped short of ruling him
out as future EU Council president but stressed the former premier currently
had his hands full as the international community's Middle East envoy.

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