PARIS (AFP) — 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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