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Attention Nicolas s'il vous plait

NICOLAS Sarkozy is welcome to Ireland, as President of France and President of the European Council. We have countless long and close ties with his country, and we need a friendly dialogue with him on the recent events which have created a near-crisis for the European Union and, certainly, a crisis for Ireland.

These events have caused grave concerns for the European Council. Like our own Government, it must seek to dispel the atmosphere of uncertainty and controversy.

The Fianna Fail backbencher who dismissed the Council President's interest in the Lisbon referendum vote as "none of his business" was talking nonsense.

But it has to be said, and said firmly, that Mr Sarkozy himself has contributed more to the threatening atmosphere than any other person outside our shores, and made solutions to our dilemma harder to find. In Dublin today, he, and all those he meets, must concentrate on the search for solutions.

In normal times, his visit would be marked by celebration and a touch of the self-congratulation which is endemic in both Ireland and France. Unfortunately, that is not possible in the present circumstances. He must be businesslike. And he must be conciliatory.

He made a crucial mistake when he said bluntly that Ireland would have to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty. Being a person with a very good opinion of himself, he evidently overlooked two deep ironies.

By common consent, it would be undemocratic for France or any country to ignore the Irish 'No' vote. It would also be undemocratic for Ireland to demand that other EU countries should suspend the process to ratify the treaty. But only three years ago French and Dutch voters killed off the proposed EU constitution, a document remarkably similar to the treaty. It serves no purpose to dwell on hypothetical points and invalid comparisons, but Mr Sarkozy should be the last person to tell us that what is sauce for the Strasbourg goose is not sauce for the Monaghan gander. Secondly, and more significantly, he gave a strong, and apparently all too well founded, appearance of arrogance and bullying.

The irony here is that the successful anti-Lisbon campaigners had accused the Government, and the other advocates of ratifying the treaty, of precisely that. In reality the bullying, and the "blatant lies" of which they have made so much, all came from their own side. Now, however, the French President seems to have given them some post-campaign justification.

At a time like this, these questions cannot be glossed over in the customary diplomatic way. The issue is too serious, and the mood in Dublin too nervous.

Matters have not been helped by the appearance of chaos surrounding the arrangements for today's meetings. In Paris, the official line is that Mr Sarkozy regards his trip as a fact-finding mission.

Splendid, if that means he does not come here with too many preconceived ideas. But he will encounter more hot air than hard facts in a series of meetings with a variety of anti-Lisbon groups, often with conflicting, as well as self-serving, aims.

He may -- he should -- make better progress in his talks with the Taoiseach and other mainstream politicians. Here, however, it has to be questioned whether sufficient solid ground exists to identify a mutually agreed means of proceeding. Even if it does, we can hardly expect anything beyond a tentative drawing of lines to research and build on.

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And a clear distinction already exists between the French President's demand for a second vote and the ideas current both in Ireland and France. The latter have in fact been canvassed in the hope of avoiding a second referendum. For example, they include the retention of a Commissioner for each country and a declaration by the Council of Ministers on issues of particular Irish concern like defence and abortion.

Politicians of any nationality might be forgiven for thinking that some of the concern is manufactured, not real. But politicians of all nationalities have to pay heed to their electorates. We are in a crisis. It will be immensely difficult to extricate ourselves, but our troubles will bring some good if they teach Nicolas Sarkozy, Brian Cowen and the rest of the European elite that they have fallen out of touch with the people. They must reconnect.

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