-- Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist, the opinions expressed are his own --
By Paul Taylor
PARIS (Reuters) - Not content with a temporary role as first consul, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to be emperor of Europe. That, at least, is the way it looks to many of his EU partners.
The energetic French president has relished his term in the European Union's rotating presidency so much -- playing fireman during the Georgia war and the global financial crisis -- that he is loath to cast off the mantle at midnight on December 31.
His aides are working actively on ways to perpetuate his European leadership into 2009 and beyond, using the euro zone, NATO, the new Mediterranean Union, Middle East diplomacy and a continuing mediation role with Russia and Georgia as levers.
The fact that Paris hands over the six-month presidency to the Czech Republic, an EU newcomer with a divided government, a Eurosceptical president and no seat in the euro zone, may help Sarkozy's bid to extend his influence.
But apart from the implicit challenge to EU institutions, the problem is the economic policy direction in which he wants to lead Europe, taking advantage of the credit crisis and recession to push old-fashioned French "dirigisme" (state direction of the economy).
The main obstacle is the reluctance of Germany, the EU's biggest economy and France's traditional partner in leadership.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is deeply suspicious of Sarkozy's efforts to build greater euro zone economic governance and irked by his effort to position himself as the "go to" man in Europe for incoming U.S. President Barack Obama.
She sees his calls for an "economic government of Europe" as a challenge to the independence of the European Central Bank and a recipe for protectionism and government meddling in industry.
"Merkel is always polite and the Germans don't like to be troublemakers. But at some point soon, they are going to say: 'Enough!'," says Ulrike Guerot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"Super Sarko" has called a record number of summits during his hyper-active EU presidency, traveling twice to Moscow to broker a ceasefire and a Russian pullback in Georgia, and twice to Washington to press for a global financial summit and more international regulation in the credit crisis.
He has set ambitious economic agendas for the EU and the G20 grouping of industrialized and emerging powers, although the results have been far more modest.
"Sarkozy has shaken things up, not just out of personal ambition but out of a belief that Europe needs strong political leadership to overcome its complex routine and face up to the challenges of our times," says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation think-tank.
Giuliani described the French leader in a recent book as "a European in a big hurry," determined to put France back in the pilot's seat of EU integration and willing to use unorthodox methods to achieve his objective.
Sarkozy broke the straitjacket of EU institutions by holding meetings of the leaders of the four biggest European economies -- France, Germany, Britain and Italy -- and of the 15-nation Eurogroup of countries that share the euro single currency.
He formed a pragmatic alliance with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, not an EU enthusiast, to promote bold steps to rescue banks, revive interbank lending and respond to recession.
And he has displayed a ruthless streak in undermining those he perceives as standing in the way of his leadership.
Blaming tax havens for part of the financial crisis, Sarkozy dared to snipe at Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe's longest serving leader and chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, over his country's banking secrecy.
He also signaled that the financial crisis was likely to require more euro zone summits in 2009, which he wants to chair.
Juncker, a critic of French budget deficits, speaks on behalf of the Eurogroup and is a contender for the post of president of the European Council of EU leaders if and when the Lisbon Treaty reforming the bloc's institutions takes effect.
French Secretary of State for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Sarkozy's key fixer during the EU presidency, openly criticized Germany for resisting French proposals for a coordinated European economic recovery program.
"Why don't you think the Germans are making a profound mistake?" he asked a radio interviewer. "All we are saying is that it is better to have an economic union and economic coordination than to have disorderly national responses."
Next year's diplomatic calendar offers Sarkozy plenty of opportunities to flex his leadership muscles while Germany will be inwardly focused in an election year and Britain mired in a deeper and more painful recession than the rest of Europe.
One showcase will be an April 3-4 NATO summit, jointly hosted by France and Germany in Strasbourg and Kehl, which will be the centerpiece of Obama's first presidential visit to Europe and mark France's return to the alliance's military wing.
Expect Sarkozy to put on an impressive show to highlight Paris' role as Washington's new indispensable ally, perhaps offering more troops for Afghanistan and proposing a European peacekeeping role in any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
The French have secured two years as co-president of the Mediterranean Union grouping the EU and its southern neighbors, giving Paris opportunities for high-profile initiatives with North Africa and in the Middle East.
Sarkozy's gambit of bringing Syria in from the cold in exchange for cooperation in Lebanon could bear fruit in 2009 as Obama looks for an exit from Iraq and breathes new life into Middle East peacemaking.
His good relations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which enabled him to broker the Georgia ceasefire, could pay off if Obama opts for detente rather than confrontation with Moscow.
But his coziness with the Kremlin worries EU governments in central and eastern Europe.
The risk is that Sarkozy, whose restless energy sometimes gets the better of diplomatic calculation, overplays his hand, offending European partners and irritating Washington.
editing by Peter Millership