EU Quietly Roots for Sarkozy

BRUSSELS -- European Union officials are quietly hoping conservative Nicolas Sarkozy will win France's presidential election and move swiftly to reform EU institutions and modernize his country's shackled economy.

Sarkozy and Socialist rival Segolene Royal are expected to emerge as the victors in the first round of voting Sunday, according to a survey by pollsters BVA released Thursday.

Sarkozy is widely regarded in Brussels as the most pragmatic candidate, capable of working with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a quick agreement on a slimmed-down treaty replacing the stalled EU constitution rejected by French voters in 2005.

But his campaign comments vowing to defend French companies against foreign takeovers and blaming the strength of the euro for France's economic woes have caused dismay and alarm in the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

And his outspoken opposition to Turkey's EU membership bid sends shivers through Ankara and its supporters, although diplomats say some European leaders would be content for France to derail a candidacy unpopular among their voters.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a fellow conservative, gave Sarkozy a striking public endorsement as "a convinced and convincing European" when the then-interior minister visited Brussels in September. The two men called each other by their first names, used the familiar "tu" form of address in French and embraced.

Barroso, convinced progress is only possible in Europe with France's active engagement, was noticeably cooler when he met Royal soon afterward and did not receive centrist Francois Bayrou, the "third man" in the election.

"From a Brussels point of view, I think there is a general mood that Sarkozy is the man who is taking Europe most seriously so far," said Giles Merritt, secretary-general of the Friends of Europe, a think tank.

Royal and Bayrou have both vowed to hold another referendum on any new EU treaty, raising the unwelcome prospect of a risky and divisive campaign that could further delay a solution.

Royal's demand to renegotiate the ECB's statutes to permit more political influence on the bank has been rejected by all European partners, especially Germany, and by the commission.

EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia took aim at the two leading contenders -- Sarkozy and Royal -- when he urged the French unusually bluntly to stop blaming a strong euro for their high unemployment and slow growth, noting that it had not harmed the recovery of Germany, the EU's biggest exporter.

Almunia has warned the French against economic nationalism, comparing it to the "Maginot line" anti-tank barrier, which failed to stop Germany from invading France in 1940.

EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes also weighed in, declaring herself "shocked" by Sarkozy's vow to work to keep French companies out of foreign hands.

"One of the candidates was just pleading for more national champions and more protectionist actions," she told reporters in Berlin. "It is outdated to talk about national champions ... it is outdated to talk about protectionism."

French officials, including Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot, have advised their EU colleagues not to take Sarkozy's Europe-bashing rhetoric too seriously.

His true European commitment, they say, was set out in the pragmatic speech he gave in Brussels last year, calling for a quick mini-treaty to fix EU institutions and move forward.