Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader

Patrice de Beer
28 July 2008

It is hard to imagine Nicolas Sarkozy as a diplomat - at least until his adoption of that role became unavoidable, when on 1 July 2008 France began its six-month chairing of the European Union. If it remains an an effort to think of "Sarko" performing the diplomat's duties, it is in large part a matter of style: for the French president seems always readier to bulldoze his views over his partners, to express himself in blunt and even acrimonious terms towards any leader or country bold enough to disagree with or oppose him, than to seek common ground or compromise.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007)

"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007)

"The French temptation" (31 August 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test" (29 November 2007)

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Civil war, French-style, in the US" (4 June 2008)

This has been a consistent pattern of his presidency since his election in May 2007 - from his appropriation of the sole credit for the deal which freed the imprisoned Bulgarian nurses from Libya (even though this was arduously negotiated beforehand by Berlin and Brussels) to his scorn for the Irish after their referendum "no" on 12 June 2008 to the Lisbon treaty (an attitude only somewhat moderated during his flying visit to Dublin on 21 July). The fact that Sarkozy, fifteen months after his election, runs France unopposed means that he is still unused (or where they arise indifferent) to objections from foreign politicians or media.

Sarkozy is a man in a hurry, unable or unwilling to wait, ever pushing for new projects, eager to impose his hyperactive and egotistic and style to short-circuit his opponents and impose a quick outcome he can gleefully present on the TV evening news as his doing. A trained lawyer in a country long run by former civil servants in grey suits, he is more interested by show than by substance. What he wants is a rapid success which can be followed by another, then another; the cost of trampling anyone bold or rude enough to stand in the way is a trifle, if it is considered at all.

In this, Sarko resembles the idea of a hyperactive American president who seeks to unchain himself from constitutional constraints. So far, this departure from the model of how French presidents have been used to behaving seems to have worked - even if he is running a country his own prime minister has called "bankrupt", and even amid the irritation of European and other states who see in Sarkozy's frenetic activity a sort of rebranding of French arrogance.

Between reality and dream

The French presidency of the European Union is an opportunity for Nicolas Sarkozy to consolidate the success of this first year with the country's closest partners and neighbours. The grandeur of his political ambitions here was never better reflected than in the lavish republican gathering he hosted at the the Grand Palais in Paris on 13 July 2008, when forty-three heads of state and government from Europe, north Africa and the middle east came together - if only for a few hours - to celebrate the consummation of Sarkozy's pet project, the "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean" (or UPM).

Sarkozy's grin showed no sign of the compromises he had had to make to reach this point: weakening his initially stringent draft on the new "union's" immigration policy draft to appease Spain, and changing both the title and the composition of what he had wanted to call the "Mediterranean Union" after fierce opposition from Germany (Sarkozy had wanted to restrict European membership of the union to the southern EU countries, but had to concede to the argument of chancellor Angela Merkel that this could divide the EU and sideline Berlin). The French president was unfazed: what mattered was the show, the image, the performance, the occasion, the appearance - and that it was all his doing.

Indeed, the Union pour la Méditerranée is a case-study in Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign policy. It had been conceived by his close political adviser Henri Guaïno with several artful purposes in mind:

Also in openDemocracy on French policy under Nicolas Sarkozy:

Andrew Stevens, "The Paris-Tokyo syndrome" (7 June 2007)

James MacDougall, "Sarkozy and Africa: big white chief's bad memory" (7 December 2007)

* bypassing the European Union (which Guaïno loathes) in the effort to acquire the lead role in defining the EU's Mediterranean policy and funds

* creating a grand project to affirm France's independence of action

* developing the countries on France and the EU's southern fringe with the purpose of drying up direct economic emigration, creating a bulwark against emigration from sub-Saharan Africa, and diverting Turkey (which, for Guaïno is not an European nation) away from EU membership

* showing the Bush administration that it could be more fruitful to engage enemies (such as Syria) in dialogue than demonise them as members of an "axis of evil".

Between the ambition and the reality, falls the bling-bling. For the reality revealed by the pomposity of 13 July 2008 is little more than a new "Club Med" (after the group once represented by Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) whose bureaucracy, resources and ethos somehow fail to cohere: there are two co-presidents (Nicolas Sarkozy and Hosni Mubarak), but as yet no structure, no serious budget for its six ambitious programmes, and no real human-rights dimension. It also sits in awkward relationship with the 1995 "process" of which it is the inheritor (see Fred Halliday, "The 'Barcelona process': ten years on", 11 November 2005).

The grin without the cat

Sarkozy wants to remain co-chair of the Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean after December 2008 - in the same way that he would have liked to stay co-chair of the European Union throughout 2009, were the Czech Republic and Sweden not to be in line for the rotating presidency. His UPM partners are dubious about this ambition, so the decision has been deferred. Tunisia and Morocco are competing to house the secretariat, so this decision at least should be made by the end of 2008. With no money to spare, France hopes for financial support from the Gulf states to bankroll the UPM.

Meanwhile, not even Sarkozy's smile or hand-gestures can conceal the tensions between some of the Paris participants. The king of Morocco stayed away in anticiaption of the warm welcome afforded to his neighbour and rival, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who himself is highly critical of the UPM); Turkey is aware of Sarkozy's opposition to its accession to the EU, and the UPM's place in this; Palestinian and Syrian leaders left the Grand Palais when Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was ready to speak. But it was worth Bashir al- Assad's time to attend, for the Syrian president's presence - and promise at some point to open an embassy in Beirut - were enough to make his host lay aside Syria's alliance with Iran and complicity in the murder of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 (and a series of other critics of Syria in Lebanon since).

The Paris event ended with a Sarkozy-style triumph of appearance which - after years of inaction under Jacques Chirac - did at least put France at the centre of the world's attention for a day. It looks impressive: forty-three European, African and middle-east leaders representing 800 million people, in a unified manifestation of north-south, rich-poor, Israeli-Arabs engagement facilitated by a great feat of French diplomacy (with only the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi boycotting the summit). But what was it all for?

The dream of a new Mediterranean once again becoming the centre of the world - 2,000 years after the Roman empire - is unlikely once the heads of state and government are again mired in hard domestic political realities. What, after all, will become of the UPM when the French presidency is over? What will matter of the Bush-Sarkozy intimacy when Barack Obama or John McCain enters the White House? What will happen to Sarkozy's promises to be the president of human rights? What will European countries do when they become tired of the French president overbearing ego and ambitions?

And - for all politics is local, as a wise observer once said - what will be the result if and when France's dire economic situation begins to cloud Nicolas Sarkozy's rapid-fire diplomatic performance? Will it then still be all his doing?

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