French fears of a UK-led Europe
As France's election battle concentrates leaders' minds on domestic issues, officials worry that Paris has allowed Britain to steal a lead role in EU reform. Olivier Baube reports.
"Politically we can't do anything much, while Tony Blair has seized the chance to take the bull by the horns," lamented one senior French official, who asked to remain anonymous.
While the Convention on the Future of Europe has only just begun work on an "EU constitution" - to act as a blueprint for further European integration - France is worried that it has already been sidelined.
Losing ground to London could hurt French interests. If both Britain and France support a vision of Europe of strong nation states, on many issues they are wide apart.
In the run-up to the first meeting of the 105-member council, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has built alliances with right-wing leaders in Italy and Spain and signed a deal with Germany on the direction of EU reform.
Meanwhile France's President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin have been locked in a personal political duel leaving French diplomats to fret that a debate they once dominated is slipping away from them.
Right-wing Chirac and his Socialist rival are supposed to speak for France with one voice, at least until the Barcelona EU summit, but their battle has stopped them coming up with fresh initiatives, a French diplomat complained.
Britain and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi favour liberalising the energy market, for example, an idea that is an anathema to French leaders and power industry unions, especially in the run-up to the April-May presidential poll and subsequent legislatives.
And any increase in British, Italian and Spanish influence can only further damage the ailing Franco-German axis, long seen as the key alliance in Europe and the motor of EU integration.
Despite local distractions, Paris is well aware of the importance of the March meeting in Barcelona in defining the contours of a Union soon to swell to include up to 12 more countries from eastern, central and Mediterranean Europe.
"We have weighed the importance of this building site," Chirac told the French cabinet during a recent regular Wednesday morning session. "True to its tradition, France took the lead in the birth of this project," he proclaimed.