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.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
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
Leader: President Sarkozy addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Tuesday. He said the 15-member euro zone should strengthen economic governance.

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.

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."

Sarkozy has had issues with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose aides complained that Sarkozy would step in and steal headlines and the hard-earned thunder of a German leader who did her homework when Germany led the EU in 2007.

But German newspapers, such as the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and German analysts have praised quick French action in mediating between Russia and Georgia, and point to Sarkozy's good faith bargaining in the final hours of the crucial Lisbon Treaty to unify Europe last year, where he and Ms. Merkel achieved a historic agreement.

"He's become more of a diplomat and political manager than a personality show," argues Henning Riecke of the Berlin-based German Council of Foreign Relations.

There's been some back and forth between the British and French press over who deserves the lead position in Europe on the credit crisis, Gordon Brown – who Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said "saved the world" with his plan – or Sarkozy. But the spat doesn't appear to be originating at the top.

Cool in a crisis?

It was as a cool crisis manager that Sarkozy first came to broad attention in France.

As mayor of the tony Paris suburb of Neuilly in 1993, Sarkozy faced a hostage situation where a man calling himself the "human bomb" entered a nursery school with a rifle and explosives.

Sarkozy went directly into the school, negotiated with the disturbed man, and walked out surrounded by the children.

The police later shot the man; but no one had seen a politician act like this before.

Still, a year ago after a hard-fought campaign, Sarkozy looked like the incredible shrinking president.

His marriage had collapsed, he faced strikes by transport workers that shut down France's subway system, and efforts to create a "tax shield" for wealthy French citizens was deeply unpopular in a country where vanishing "purchasing power" was on many French lips.

Monsieur 'bling bling'

Sarkozy was criticized for lavish vacations, for garish "bling bling" tastes, for putting his personal life in front of the media as he courted supermodel Carla Bruni, whom he later married. His approval rating fell from 65 to 32 percent.

A rude epithet by Sarkozy to a critic at a farm show outside Paris was posted on YouTube in February. Even in July, hopes for a glorious French presidency of the EU that would bring a ratification of the Lisbon Treaty looked dashed, as Ireland refused to ratify it. He faced pressure in August after a Taliban attack killed nearly a dozen French troops.

Yet what the prime ministers of Denmark and Luxembourg have called Sarkozy's "intensity" in negotiating with Moscow, and with Washington in pushing a European model of reform – has put Sarkozy's approval up to 49 percent [Editor's note: The original version misidentified prime ministers of Denmark and Luxembourg].

Even columnists like Jean Quatremer, for the left-wing Liberation, not a bastion of Sarkozy support, have been feeling pride in the president's achievements: "Apart from the British," Quatremer wrote this week, "who have always had a hard time acknowledging positive developments from the continent in general, and France in particular, everyone is seduced by Sarkozy's activism and ability to compromise."

"A lot of this moment could be as in the past, public relations and spin" says a long time Parisian commentator, pointing out that in Sarkozy's negotiations with Russian President Medvedev last month, both men emerged with dramatically different accounts of what had been decided. "We'll have to wait and see."

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