A driving force behind building the European Union into a political, economic and military superpower, France takes the helm of the EU's rotating presidency on New Year's Day.

Three more countries - Austria, Sweden and Finland - expand the trading block to 15 countries and 370 million people. Other countries of Eastern Europe are clamoring to sign on, putting new pressures on the EU to evolve.France's agenda during its six-month term as head of the policymaking Council of Ministers includes reforming language and cultural policy, security and construction projects.

But French goals could be jeopardized by a change of presidents midstream.

The vote to succeed the aging and ailing Socialist President Francois Mitterrand this spring "will incontestably cause us problems," said Alain Lamassoure, European affairs minister, citing a European summit set for June 26-27 in Cannes.

The winner is expected to be a conservative not as pro-European as Mitterrand, who has clashed with undeclared front-runner and conservative Premier Edouard Balladur over EU policy.