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Aides deny Hollande eyeing key EU role overseeing Brexit

Reuters

PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande does not want to chair the European Council when he steps down as French president in May, aides said on Thursday, denying a report that he hoped to succeed Donald Tusk in overseeing negotiations on Britain's exit from the EU.

"Completely untrue," one called the report in Le Parisien newspaper, which cited unnamed sources saying the Socialist hoped to move to Brussels to take a job that might fall vacant within weeks of Hollande leaving office after a May 7 election.

Tusk, a former Polish prime minister whose role chairing summits of European Union leaders has made him the broker for a deal to usher Britain out of the bloc, has yet to say whether he wants to stay on when his first 30-month term ends on May 31.

Hollande's unpopularity at home - he did not even seek a second term - is no job reference for taking the helm of an EU battling eurosceptics. "It would continue the unhappy tradition of the EU bureaucracy being the dumping ground for failed and unelectable politicians," Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British lawmaker in Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative party, told Reuters.

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Several Brussels diplomats and EU government officials said they had heard no talk of Hollande, 62, seeking the Council job. One Council member told Reuters it sounded like a "crazy rumor" - but that there could yet be some logic behind such a move.

European socialists complain that this week's election of a conservative to replace the center-left speaker of the European Parliament means that either Tusk or European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker should be replaced, since center-right politicians now head all three key EU bodies.

EU officials play down the strength of that argument and note Tusk, 59, enjoys solid support in the Council. There has, however, been speculation that he might be tempted to return to Poland to challenge his right-wing opponents now in power there.

Finally, Hollande has a good relationship with conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And founding EU powers Paris and Berlin will want the Council's 27 remaining members to stick together as they negotiate strict terms for Britain's divorce.

Hollande's tough line that Britain will suffer after Brexit has not endeared him to May's government - Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson this week compared the French president to a World War Two camp guard administering "punishment beatings", a remark that drew its own round of outrage from continental politicians.

The Council president is chosen by the leaders, ideally by consensus but, if not, by a majority vote that denies any veto.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Alastair Macdonald, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and William James in London; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Mark Heinrich)