Strange bedfellows in Sarkozy's Club Med

Those who believe Nicolas Sarkozy is a bit of a show-off may have their suspicions confirmed this weekend when the French president welcomes about 40 heads of government, including all the EU's leaders, to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for the extravagant launch of his pet project, the Union for the Mediterranean.

The idea is to create a permanent institutional link between Europe and all countries with Mediterranean coastlines, including such odd bedfellows as Israel, Palestine, Syria and Libya. The hope is that the union will boost economic and security cooperation. The party will continue into Bastille Day on Monday.

Critics – and there are many – say Sarkozy's grand projet is a vainglorious attempt to increase French influence in a region it has manipulated and exploited since Napoleonic times. They say Sarkozy is merely trying to boost his own battered standing and France's EU presidency — which got off to the worst possible start when Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty — or build a virtual Maginot line across North Africa to repel illegal immigrants.

Algeria, which fought a bloody war to rid itself of French control, has been among the more sceptical participants. Like other Arab countries involved, it has warned that the new organisation should not be "a cover for a creeping normalisation of relations with Israel".

Muammar Gadafy, Libya's leader, is boycotting the summit, though he will send an observer. "This project is frightening, it is dangerous. I predict it will be a complete failure," he said this week. Gadafy said Islamists in north Africa would view the union as a form of revived colonialism and use it to justify stepped-up jihadi attacks.

Given Sarkozy's strong opposition to Turkey's EU ambitions, politicians in Ankara worry that the project is yet another diversionary wheeze to fob them off with something less than full membership. If that did prove to be the case, it might appeal to Germany and Austria who fret about "Turks at the gate".

But Berlin had its own problems with the union as first outlined by Sarkozy last year. He initially envisaged restricting membership to countries touching the Mediterranean. Germany and Britain would thus have been excluded, even though their EU budget contributions would have helped pay for it. Concern was also raised about its impact on the EU's unity and identity.

Sarkozy's officials deny sharp practice, boasting instead that France has "produced a complete reform of a major EU policy in only one year". But they have shifted ground. The union will now include all 27 EU states and its lineal connection to an earlier, less grandiose Mediterranean initiative — the Spanish-led Barcelona process — has been more fully acknowledged.

"It's now a much more modest project than Sarkozy expected and wanted. It has been watered down," a Spanish diplomatic source said. "We support it. But making it work will be very difficult."

That view is widely shared across northern Europe. Analysts suggest that trying to squeeze agreed, effective policies out of so large and disparate a grouping will be a Sisyphean task – and that Sarkozy risks being flattened under his own over-large rock.

"It's true that these days people in Europe worry less about the east and more about the south," said Michael Howard, the distinguished Oxford historian. "But it [the union] is a bit like trying to herd cats."

Bassam Bounenni, a Tunisian journalist writing in the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin, wondered whether the union could produce "significant progress in economic, security and cultural relations or will end up being simply a public relations move by Sarkozy … The question remains: is it needed?" Arab opinion was divided over the answer, he said, with some saying it will undermine the African Union and the Arab League.

Yet even if the new organisation, which will have a secretariat and co-presidency, is destined to be largely a talking shop, that may not be wholly a bad thing. The inaugural meeting will provide an exceptional opportunity for bilateral discussions between leaders whose paths rarely cross. They include Syria's Bashar Assad and Israel's Ehud Olmert, both of whom are expected to attend. Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and the Egyptian and Algerian presidents are also said to be coming.

Speculation is rife that the indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria mediated by Turkey could now be followed by a face-to-face meeting in Paris of the two countries' leaders. That would be a symbolic first.

Needless to say, it would also be presented by the Elysée as a masterful diplomatic coup by France's showman president.

Simon Tisdall