Sarkozy's shadow looms large over EU finmin meeting

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PORTO, Portugal, Sep 15 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy is getting used to dominating European finance ministers' meetings -- even when he is not physically there and especially when his comments are not welcome.

European Union finance ministers' relatively sedate agenda of International Monetary Fund reform and settlement systems was eclipsed today after Sarkozy criticised two key European Union figureheads in comments to a French newspaper.

Sarkozy, who gatecrashed July's euro zone finance ministers' meeting to defend his budget plans, accused the European Central Bank of aiding speculators with its liquidity injections and criticised Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker of failing to be proactive in the face of financial market turmoil.

That was enough to ensure Sarkozy hogged the limelight at the finance meeting, just as he had earlier this year when European Union leaders agreed a blueprint for a reform treaty.

Such grandstanding has already irked some in the EU, but the latest example left officials wondering why Sarkozy appeared intent on raising hackles at a time when Paris' budget plans are already causing frictions with the rest of the euro zone, where some believe France is not doing enough to cut its deficit.

''People really tried not to rock the boat over the French budget at this meeting so you have to wonder why Sarkozy suddenly went nuts,'' said an EU source who declined to be identified.

''It really isn't clear what he thinks he will achieve with this.'' BIG FOOTPRINTS Not known for keeping his counsel, Sarkozy has repeatedly attacked the ECB for not doing enough to promote euro zone growth and for following policies which are sending the euro higher on the foreign exchanges, to the detriment of exporters.

Such comments play well with French voters, who notably rejected the EU draft constitution in 2005, and Sarkozy's tendancy to be omnipresent in domestic policymaking has been rewarded with good opinion poll soundings.

Some finance officials were inclined to take the unquenchable Frenchman in their stride.

''He has got a new job and is just trying to leave his footprints,'' said one European finance source.

But others seemed to be finding him harder to swallow.

European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia leapt to the defence of the ECB and Juncker and other euro zone finance officials while Bundesbank chief Axel Weber pointedly refused to be provoked.

''The news value of Sarkozy's critique is zero. And zero is as well the influence on the ECB,'' Weber told a news conference.

While Sarkozy has given prominence to his desire to put France back at the heart of Europe, his communications strategy looked to be at cross purposes.

''He just seems to be hijacking things and it looks like the climate is getting is getting worse,'' said the EU source.

REUTERS GL PM2121

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