G8 gives unpopular host Nicolas Sarkozy a platform to polish his image

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is keen to show leadership prowess at the two-day Deauville summit ahead of 2012 elections in France.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses reporters during a news briefing at the G8 summit in Deauville, northern France May 26.

Leaders of the G8 countries are discussing a wide range of issues at their two-day meeting in the French beach resort of Deauville: the Arab Spring, nuclear energy, International Monetary Fund leadership, and rules and regulations for the Internet.

One item is not on the official agenda, but no less important for G8 host Nicolas Sarkozy, is the French leader's need to boost his chances for reelection next year.

“Mr. Sarkozy is under no illusions about his popularity in France – it’s low,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations IFRI. “Even though the French don’t care much about the G8 summit, it’s an opportunity for him to show himself as a leader.”

Mr. Sarkozy is probably aware that his image needs some polishing. France’s initial reaction to the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt was seen as highly embarrassing: Initially it stood by the dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak; former French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie even offered the Tunisian government help in quelling the rebellion.

Now Sarkozy wants to do it right: He has invited the new leaders of Tunisia and Egypt to Deauville, and lobbied the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to support the transition to democracy in a number of Arab countries with up to 3.5 billion euros per year.

Sarkozy's cyberintiative

While his G8 colleagues back Sarkozy on the Arab Spring, they mistrust his plans to regulate the Internet.

The Deauville meeting was preceded by a so-called "e-G8" forum in Paris earlier this week, where the French president invited top executives of the world’s largest Internet companies as well as government officials.

“The Internet revolution doesn’t have a flag, it belongs to everyone,” Sarkozy said in an address to the e-G8. Having praised the Arab rebels who used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate their actions, Sarkozy went on to insist that the Internet was not a parallel universe. “Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies.”

France is known for its tough stance on cybercrime; it’s the only European country that cuts digital pirates off from the Internet. But particularly the US looks with suspicion at any plans to impose rules on the medium.

It’s unlikely the Deauville communiqué will contain anything more concrete than references to protecting e-business and copyrights, says Mr. Moreau Defarges. “This is a PR event, an opportunity for Sarkozy to present himself as a modern president, have his picture taken next to all these Internet pioneers.”

The nuclear question

On the nuclear issue, the front lines are different – it’s Germany against the rest.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government is committed to phasing out nuclear energy altogether, asked her G8 colleagues this morning to join her call for mandatory stress tests on nuclear power stations around the world.

On Wednesday, the EU agreed on such safety tests for its 143 power plants, but France, which gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors, says it is unlikely to reduce its reliance on atomic energy.

Then there's the post of the IMF managing director. After Dominique Strauss-Kahn – up until two weeks ago not just head of the IMF but also a powerful potential rival in the candidacy for French president – had to quit his job over allegations of sexual harassment and rape, the EU countries agreed on another Frenchman for the job: Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

The G8 will not decide on her candidacy, but Europe, and particularly Sarkozy, will be using the occasion to lobby for Japanese and US support. They will need it, given that the emerging market economies have made clear that it is time for one of theirs to get the prestigious post.

So, can Sarkozy profit domestically by successfully hosting the 2011 G8 summit? Moreau Defarges is skeptical: “Deauville is short and the elections are a year away. Much can happen in a year.”

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