Is French 'hyperpresident' all hype?

Nicolas Sarkozy's role in Tuesday's release of five Bulgarian nurses was touted as another success amid EU lethargy. But some say his frenetic diplomacy lacks substance.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Tripoli Wednesday to help open isolated Libya to greater European and international ties. The meeting comes a day after a French presidential plane flew home five Bulgarian nurses freed from a Libyan death sentence, in a deal partly arranged by Mr. Sarkozy's wife, Cecilia, the first lady of France.

Speaking of the unusual tag-team diplomacy with Muammar Qaddafi out of the French Élysée Palace, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters he was "very grateful for their [the Sarkozys'] personal engagement." He went on to say, however, that the release of the nurses and a Palestinian doctor found guilty in Libyan courts of inoculating hundreds of children with HIV, "was a long term outcome" that was steadily negotiated by European diplomats.

For the peripatetic wunderkind president of France, however – photographed all over Europe with his thumb up during an initial 10 weeks in office that have redefined the word "whirlwind" – it may seem just another day on the job.

France has not earned such triumphal headlines in years; the nation has been in a diplomatic drought, with only last summer's peacekeeping leadership in Lebanon a proud moment.

'Sarkozy is always on the scene'

Since becoming head of state May 6, France's new-generation president has weighed in on nearly all foreign-policy questions within earshot, met dozens of world leaders, and, as the French media likes to say, "is everywhere."

Sarkozy is in Britain, he is in Brussels, he is in Berlin; he is saluting the troops on the Champs Élysées on July 14; he is in a tiny Alpine village handing out flowers to cyclists in the Tour de France. In June, Sarkozy sponsored a Paris conference on Darfur, putting US, China, and France – all United Nations Security Council members – at the same table at the same time on the issue of genocide in Sudan.

He helped German Chancellor Angela Merkel get an 11th-hour agreement on a crucial EU treaty in June, and shortly after managed to garner European support for a leading French socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to take the helm of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – a minor coup. His views, and thus the position of France, are slowly getting attention: Sarkozy advocates delayed independence for Kosovo; he wants to block EU membership for Turkey; he thinks China should reevaluate its currency.

"The election made all this possible," says Frédéric Bozo at the Sorbonne. "He had a mandate to work out the European treaty and to work on the Bulgarian nurses, and he has delivered. Beyond that, I think you have to take it case by case. But he is bringing more visibility to France."

Yet behind the diplomatic scenes, a rising level of grumbling is being heard in European circles about Sarkozy taking credit for more than he has achieved, in such moves as the freeing of the Bulgarian nurses. He has also been criticized as being less avowedly free-market oriented than his campaign suggested. The Financial Times warned early this month that Sarkozy is close to "upsetting" his allies over what appear to be French protectionist policies in the EU.

Sarkozy has been called another Napoléon, referring to inordinate energy and forcefulness. "There is this hyperactivity that is puzzling," says Pierre Haski of Rue89, a news-policy website in Paris. "You feel somehow there is no more government, because Sarkozy is always on the scene making the quick decision. It seems like the government is being run by the president, his chief of staff, and Mrs. Sarkozy."

Indeed, the Libyan negotiations seem to have taken place entirely without the input of Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who, as The New York Times described it, was in "diplomatic darkness" about the Sarkozys' meetings with Mr. Qaddafi.

"What democratic legitimacy do they have, save that she is the wife of the president and he was appointed secretary general of the Elysee?" said Benoît Hamon, a French member of the European parliament, of Mrs. Sarkozy and presidential aide Claude Gueant, who accompanied her to Bulgaria.

As a matter of foreign policy, some analysts say, it is almost as if the French president is employing the tack that his finance minister, Christine Lagarde, recommended last week as a means to improve France economy: Don't think, work. "France is a country that thinks," Ms. Lagarde offered, addeding, "Enough thinking, let's roll up our sleeves."

'Spectacular' style draws criticism

French politician Pierre Moscovici, a senior Socialist and former Europe minister, contrasted years of patient EU efforts with the "more spectacular" intervention of the Sarkozy family. Mrs. Sarkozy's two trips to Libya garnered criticism from Europeans who complained that she and her husband were sweeping in at the last minute to capture the glory of a process that had been in the works long before Sarkozy became president.

But Diederik Vandewalle, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and author of several books on Libya, says that the Sarkozys' last-minute grand gestures carried out what many viewed as the inevitable. Mrs. Sarkozy's unorthodox approach may have offered the Libyans a door of opportunity, he adds.

"[The Libyans] were just looking for the right moment," he says. "This is the kind of gesture Qaddafi likes because what she did was thumb her nose at the EU.... It's all part of a much larger strategic process."

François Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said Sarkozy's critics had missed the point. "It's a new style, high profile, high gain, potentially high loss, requiring a very high level of energy, requiring extremely fine judgment for the nature of the situation," Mr. Heisbourg said.

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