PARIS France should hold a national debate, like Germany or Britain, on what it wants out of the European Union without waiting for Berlin to define the next stage in European integration, France's European commissioner said on Monday.
Michel Barnier urged President Francois Hollande to appoint a cross-party panel of elder statesmen to report on French interests in Europe and lead a debate on the next steps towards closer union.
"It is high time we agreed to debate these subjects, which never get discussed in this country," the commissioner in charge of the internal market and financial regulation told the Europresse association in Paris.
"Sixty percent of rules, norms and laws in France are derived from European legislation. How can we accept never to discuss these policies except to say it's all Brussels' fault?"
Barnier, a member of the centre-right opposition UMP party, was foreign minister in 2005 when a proposed EU constitution was blocked by a referendum in France, due mostly to public opposition to an enlarged, free-marketeering Europe.
He said Paris should take advantage of the fact that 2013 was a transitional year in which European diplomacy would be on hold due to elections in Italy and Germany to develop its own agenda for future integration.
Those could include issues close to French hearts such as a common industrial policy, a legal basis to protect public services under EU competition policy, and possibly mutualising some national tax resources to fund pan-euro zone policies.
"If you don't debate and screen these ideas, you end up in a position of total weakness," Barnier said. "(Chancellor) Angela Merkel is not afraid to talk about Europe in the German national debate. In France, there is a general fear of debating this."
After the German parliamentary election in September, Berlin is likely to propose treaty changes for closer integration of euro zone budget and economic policies, he said.
Hollande struggled to win parliament's approval for a euro zone fiscal pact last year, and has avoided initiatives on European integration for fear of dividing his own Socialist party and the government's wider left-wing support base, which split in the 2005 referendum campaign.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to set out a plan on Friday to renegotiate his country's membership terms with the European Union after 2015, and put the result to a referendum.
Asked whether the EU should make concessions to keep Britain in or seek to manage its exit from the bloc, Barnier said: "I remain convinced it's absolutely vital to have the UK as a member of the EU. It would be an act of mutual weakness for the UK and for Europe if Britain were to leave the Union."
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Kevin Liffey)