Under-fire EU foreign minister Lady Ashton denies that Nicolas Sarkozy gave her a dressing down

Europe's under fire foreign minister Catherine Ashton has today denied that she was given a stern lecture in how to do her job by Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French president was said to have grilled Lady Ashton, a Labour Party peer whom many consider woefully unqualified for her job, at a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

To add insult to injury, most of the dressing down was said to be in French - a language which Lady Ashton has frequently been criticised for not being able to speak very well.

Sarkozy

Grilling: President Nicolas Sarkozy told EU foreign minister Lady Ashton how to do her job in a stern lecture held in French - a language the Labour peer struggles with

Mr Sarkozy said the 53-year-old sociology graduate and former health authority chairwoman should be more ambitious and decisive in her role as foreign minister representing the 27 countries of the EU. 

‘It’s necessary to act according to what one believes is right for Europe, while getting the support of some, but while avoiding always having to get the agreement of the entire 27 before acting,’ said Mr Sarkozy. 

‘When you believe that something is important, do it. We will always be at your side if you act, if you show your ambition, if you have ideas.

'And by the by you’ll have the agreement of the 27. But do not try to systematically get the agreement of everyone before acting.’

A spokesman for Lady Ashton described the discussion as 'very fruitful and positive'. 

'In no way was she "dressed down" as you have suggested,' the spokesman said.

'They had a very full, open and frank exchange of views in a very warm atmosphere. This is normal in such political discussions on such serious matters.

'They discussed a wide-range of foreign policy issues on which President Sarkozy said he shared her vision and priorities'

But Mr Sarkozy’s words - passed on by aides following the half hour meeting - indicate the lack of confidence European heads currently have in Lady Ashton, who has failed to impress during her first six months in her £228,000-a-year job. 

Sarkozy

Frosty: Lady Ashton has faced a barrage of criticism, with French newspapers in particular accusing her of being underqualified

But, despite the frosty atmosphere, there was agreement over the need for a strong European military which Lady Ashton said should be ‘efficient, adaptable and operational’ - so that Europe has a ‘strong voice’ on all important subjects in the world.

They also agreed on the need to curb Iran’s nuclear capability, with the Elysee source saying: ‘Catherine Ashton said that, for her, Iran was the number one challenge to the security of the world today.'

Mr Sarkozy said he would seek Lady Ashton’s support in formulating a ‘true economic strategy’ for Europe, and a mechanism for a continent-wide carbon tax.  

Since taking office in November Lady Ashton has come under a barrage of criticism - particularly from the French.

Paris-based Liberation newspaper first excused her of ‘amateurism, even incompetence’, while France's Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche deplored the ‘current void’ left by Lady Ashton. 

Another French press article said Lady Ashton ‘switches off her phone after 8pm’ and heads to London every weekend to visit her husband and daughter, who is still at school.

A senior Brussels diplomat said: ‘The French seem to have it in for her. It is open to question how much of this is about her being British and a woman.'

Lady Ashton’s poor French has particularly annoyed President Sarkozy’s government, with Mr Lellouche even encouraging her to attend a language school.  

Mr Sarkozy pointedly insisted that this morning’s meeting was carried out in both French and English, said the Elysee source. 

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