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France's Sarkozy emerging as leading figure

President Nicolas Sarkozy heads to Asia this week to broach the idea of bringing India and China together with G-8 nations in a 'Bretton Woods II' framework of economic rules.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2008

Out front: President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a top role in getting the world's leaders together to tackle the global economic crisis.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters

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A year ago, France's new president raced around Europe looking frenetic. Nicolas Sarkozy's wife had left him, critics pointed to a lack of discipline and a royal style of rule – a man who moved but didn't shake – and his popularity nosedived.

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This week Mr. Sarkozy worked with President Bush to set up a series of meetings to reform the global economy, and he's now off to Asia to broach the idea of bringing India and China together with G-8 nations in a "Bretton Woods II" framework of economic rules. This comes just weeks after he moved with alacrity to broker a cease-fire deal to end the Georgia-Russia war.

Critics still point to Sarkozy's proclivity to turn politics into a show and to unashamedly take credit whenever possible. Yet in the space of a summer he has consolidated his power and blended substance with showmanship, and is now winning praise as a crisis leader in a more multipolar world.

"I think today that everyone, even those who had misgivings, acknowledge that [Sarkozy] not only has great political energy, but also exceptional leadership qualities," commented José Manuel Barroso, the EU chief who accompanied Sarkozy to Camp David this weekend.

The French president's peripatetic style is proving useful for a major crisis with multiple elements – which plays into his ability to do many things at once.

He's been blessed with good political winds: with Russia's invasion of Georgia, and with US world stock at an ebb, it is Europe's hour at a time when the EU presidency is held by France.

Europe boldly took the lead in response to the global financial crisis by offering a plan devised by Gordon Brown and, later, Sarkozy that recapitalized banks to aid the economy.

While the White House moved quickly to propose a $700 billion bailout, it finally adopted Europe's plan to address liquidity and agree to a series of Bretton Woods-style meeting after the US presidential elections on Nov. 4.

Sarkozy has quickly adopted a bully pulpit for Europe and its traditionally more measured approach to markets. In Strasbourg Tuesday, speaking to the European Parliament, he stated that Europe "must carry the idea of a new foundation of global capitalism. What happened [with toxic assets and derivatives that created a credit crisis] was a treason of the values of capitalism," he said. "The market economy itself is not called into question."

France moved this week to lend 10.5 billion euros ($14.12 billion) to six banks to boost their capital reserves.

Man of action

"He can walk into a crisis and take action. That's what a leader does; it's what Sarkozy is good at," says a former French political consultant to the prime minister's office. "He chases down an answer, he doesn't let it go. The 27 EU nations need someone who gets an agreement. We are in a crisis, and he stayed calm amid serious market fear. With no crisis, it might be a different story."