Sarkozy's big debut

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 06/06/07):
Nicolas Sarkozy makes his presidential debut on the world stage today, buoyed by a post-victory surge in public support and the prospect of a thumping majority for his UMP party in Sunday's parliamentary elections. But his political honeymoon may prove short-lived as the passionate pledges of the campaign trail come hard up against the ambiguities and limitations of power.

France's little big man is determined to make his mark. His "mandate for change" has raised expectations to levels akin to those that accompanied Tony Blair into Downing Street in 1997. As for Mr Blair then, there is a moment of opportunity for Mr Sarkozy now to take the lead internationally as well as at home. But there is also the familiar danger that ambition will outstrip performance. The G8 summit is the first test of his mettle.

Mr Sarkozy has been telling interviewers this week that he intends to hold "frank and direct" discussions with Vladimir Putin. But those who infer from this that Russia's outspoken president faces an overdue wigging over human rights abuses, energy blackmail, and threats to target missiles on Europe may be disappointed.

Rather than confront Moscow, as some in the US and eastern Europe are beginning to urge, the west should forge "a strategic relationship and very friendly relations" with Russia, Mr Sarkozy said. It was necessary to understand what "worries" Mr Putin and what "mobilises" him. This sounds eminently sensible, except that it is the same approach pursued by George Bush and Mr Blair at the start of the Putin presidency. It has since become plain that for Russia's cocksure leader, empathy equals weakness.

Mr Sarkozy has also been raising hopes of more robust action on climate change and Darfur. Speaking to Politique Internationale magazine, he said the Bush administration should stop dragging its feet on global warming and the Kyoto protocol was only a beginning.

"We have to go further with the 20 industrialised countries emitting the most greenhouse gases. I'm thinking especially of the US which I'd like to shoulder its share of responsibility," Mr Sarkozy said. China, India, Russia and Brazil would also have to "play their full part". To help meet this global challenge, a "world environment organisation" should be created, similar to the World Trade Organisation.

Mr Sarkozy was speaking before Mr Bush unveiled his own proposal for a new, non-binding, US-led international effort to tackle climate change that would bypass the UN. A French official said today that Mr Sarkozy would continue to insist on binding targets and a leading role for the UN. "We must have a multilateral mechanism," the official said.

Therein lies a quandary. The French president says he wants improved ties with the US – a tall order, according to foreign affairs analyst Dominique Moisi, while Mr Bush remains in office. On the climate change issue, he could face his own "security council moment", as in 2003 when France opposed the Bush administration's decision to circumvent the UN on Iraq and bilateral relations nosedived. If Mr Sarkozy blinks on this or other key issues, his credibility will quickly plummet, too.

His appointment of the humanitarian campaigner and socialist, Bernard Kouchner, as foreign minister, has been characterised as a masterstroke, disarming the French left on the eve of national assembly elections. It has also fed the belief that human rights issues, and Blair-style humanitarian intervention, particularly in African conflicts, will feature higher up France's agenda.

Mr Sarkozy is due to speak on Darfur tomorrow. His spokesman said his message would be: "We can no longer resign ourselves to being powerless witnesses of horror. After the indignation, now we must act." But similar words have been heard many times since the killing started – and Mr Sarkozy is still emphasising political negotiation, not direct action. Perhaps he will succeed where so many others have failed.

Awareness of the need for collective, mutually reinforcing policymaking explained Mr Sarkozy's other main area of emphasis – the need to strengthen the EU and its institutions, the French official said. "Europe must defend European interests. These are more than a collection of national interests. European interests include trade, agriculture, security, shared values."

Defining Europe's borders (with Turkey firmly outside them), and creating a parallel "Mediterranean union" of neighbouring states are other, linked priorities that may or may not come to fruition.

In the interest of a strong and efficient Europe, Mr Sarkozy would pursue a "simplified treaty" to replace the EU constitution rejected in 2005, the official said. Such a pact was vital for creating the institutions needed by an enlarged and more effective EU. Mr Sarkozy knows he has Berlin's support for the plan; he has been quick to kick-start the Franco-German motor. He will seek to change Polish minds next week during a visit to Warsaw.

But selling the idea to Gordon Brown, Britain's sceptical prime minister-in-waiting, could prove his most daunting challenge. Like Napoleon, Mr Sarkozy may discover that the limits of French power are defined by the Straits of Dover.