France's Sarkozy wins trade deal in Brazil, support at home

After years of political discontent, the French president is pumping up his poll numbers and winning trade deals.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the world’s fifth largest economy, is off reviewing troops on national day in Brasilia. He’s the only head of state at Brazil's annual independence party, and that may help win a victory for France's Dassault Aviation. The company is currently negotiating a $2.2 billion deal for 36 French Rafale fighter jets.

Given that the Rafale has not sold abroad, a deal is important – since Brazil is looking to buy 100 planes in a rehab of its air force.

Mr. Sarkozy – ever-present, controversial, voluble – continues to climb in French approval ratings. Summer’s over, and he’s at 45-47 percent job approval rating, up from as low as 32 percent last year.

The French president may be getting sympathy after a brief July collapse while jogging, or the French may be in a good mood after their epic August exodus from the city. But the vigorous leader with the fashion-model spouse, able to constantly reinvent himself a la Bill Clinton, has been out of the low 30s for a long time. That’s saying something: The French public is not an easy crowd.

Sarkozy will also return to Paris Tuesday with an $8.7 billion Brazil deal for helicopters and the hull of a nuclear sub agreed to in December, and now approved.

Following the economic crisis, Sarkozy dropped the free-market reforms he was elected on. The heady days of “la rupture,” as the 2007 Sarkozy moment was known – backing sub-prime experiments, overturning the bureaucracy – are over. He now finds the basic “socialist model” to his liking. He enjoys a political scene in which the opposition socialists seem dysfunctional, though Left Bank intellectuals still taunt him.

They recently caricatured the leader of the Republic for what they see as his un-French exercise habits. He jogs! Quelle horreur!

Yet the chain-smoking cafe set may have actually caricatured itself, as Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, a fellow jogger, notes in a recent blog: “The whole point about President Sarkozy’s running is that he is actually putting himself publicly through the same hell as the rest of us. Far from being a surrender to American values, the Sarkozy jog is in conformity with the principles of the French Revolution, and the equality and brotherhood of man.” Be that as it may, Sarkozy is trying to outflank criticism by dining with a steady stream of intellectuals and is reportedly reading important books, partly prompted by wife Carla Bruni.

Whether the French love him, like him, endure him, or hate him – Sarkozy is proving a force of nature in the French media, closely watched and aided by palace minders. He’s never gray. He may not do as much homework as the gravitas-accumulating Angela Merkel. He may play to hidden public fears by opening a burqa debate in a country where only 367 women are fully covered. But he’s no Silvio Berlusconi.

The palace doesn’t let crises, big or small, go to waste. This week 11 individuals arrested for death threats on Sarkozy via post were released for lack of evidence. Still, it’s a reminder of the world that world leaders live in.

Not that the palace wins every battle. Take the latest crisis in image-enhancement: At a Sept. 3 speech at an auto parts firm in Normandy, Sarkozy’s handlers vetted the crowd – for size. No photographs with the 5-foot, 5-inch president around tall people. The palace calls the story “grotesque,” but hasn’t denied it.

Le Figaro, Marianne, and French web sites have not spared comment on a Belgian TV report of short people bused in for the auto parts photo-op. The president has previously been shown using platforms and standing on tip-toe at public events. A hot story among the twitterati – and not untypical.

Never mind. What may give Sarkozy more political height is France’s reported inside track for fighter jets in Brazil. The French Dassault Rafale is up against the US Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, and Swedish Saab’s Gripen NG. But France has a relationship with Brazil, and is agreeing to technology transfer, including the reported building of the jets in country.

Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in interviews broadcast here Sunday and run in Le Monde that the Rafale had a “comparative advantage... The country which is in the better position to meet our conditions will have the best chances, and you know which country I'm talking about," Mr. Lula da Silva said, smiling.

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