By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 09/11/07):
Six months in office, and Nicolas Sarkozy has not ceased being an embarrassment on the world stage. From his first appearance at the G8 summit in Germany, where he foolishly called for more delay on Kosovo – a move that courtesy forced his new partners to support – to his fawning visit to Washington this week, France’s president is making waves for the wrong reasons. Headstrong and unreflective, Sarkozy risks making an ass of himself.
Take his sudden descent last Sunday on Chad, where a group of French charity workers have been charged with kidnapping scores of children, describing them as orphans, putting fake bandages on some, and seeking to remove all of them from their families for ever. Here is a case that clearly deserves to be tried where the crime was committed. Yet President Sarkozy flies into N’djamena, brightly declaring that he wants the defendants taken to justice in France.
Besides the implication in Sarkozy’s conduct that the alleged kidnappers are as much victims as the abducted children, it is hardly surprising that Chadians see his actions as insufferable imperial presumption. Yet the following day Sarkozy says his trip shows that France wants a “new” relationship with its former colonies in Africa, one in which they would be treated as “equals”. Mon Dieu.
Of course, Sarkozy and his then wife, Cécilia, had already intervened in Libya to rescue five Bulgarian nurses accused of spreading Aids. But the nurses had already spent several years in jail on evidence that was vague and deeply flawed. There is no comparison with the Chadian allegations – and if Sarkozy thinks he sees a chance for a second “success” in extracting Europeans from the horrors of Africa, more’s the pity.
The visit to Washington – from where he returned yesterday – is of a different dimension, though here the Americans are as much to blame as Sarkozy and his entourage for the phoney mood music. They are hyping the alleged shift in French policy as falsely as Sarkozy’s people. Some US and French commentators are even saying that Sarkozy is Bush’s staunchest European friend, the new Tony Blair. What is the substance? Sarkozy’s predecessor, Chirac, was a lifelong admirer of America, spending a gap year there, working in a bar and collecting a bevy of American girlfriends. Sarkozy, by contrast, first visited the US at the age of 31 as the guest of a US government “young leaders” programme – the classic case of an ambitious man who was willing to be wooed.
Chirac’s cooling towards America was not based on prejudice but a principled difference in policy over Iraq – a stance that Sarkozy (to his democratic credit, since few French people would support a turnaround) is not reversing. All that has happened is a shift in symbolism in the war on terror, pushed partly by France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who did agree with the attack on Iraq. France will send 50 military trainers, not to Iraq but southern Afghanistan, as well as letting its Mirage fighter-bombers go into action there. Not much change there.
The main US excitement came from a stray Sarkozy comment that he might rejoin Nato’s integrated compound almost 50 years after De Gaulle walked out. Washington saw an opening, and hopes this reconciliation will happen at the alliance’s next summit in April. Since then, however, the Gaullists around the president have taken the issue back from the Atlanticists, and policy is likely to remain unchanged – though, with his impetuosity and a dose of Bush flattery this week, who knows what Sarkozy will do?
On some “Islamic” issues he is certainly closer to Bush than Chirac was. Sarkozy speaks more fiercely against Iran and more warmly towards Israel. On Turkey there is a difference. While Bush sees a western interest in wooing Ankara, Sarkozy feels no such imperative. He wants Turkey kept out of the EU.
At home, Sarkozy’s rush to act first and think afterwards is as notable as on foreign policy. So are his arrogance and bad temper. He demeaned his friend and jogging partner, the prime minister François Fillon, by calling him an “aide”. He shouted at his press secretary, publicly accusing him of being a “child” and an “imbecile”. Where is the dignity of the office? Where is a sense of the responsibilities a president carries? Where is the subtlety needed by anyone who wants to negotiate a new deal with France’s public service workers? Foreign policy was almost absent from the presidential campaign. So why race around like a bull in an international china shop when you were elected to implement a domestic agenda?
The glamour of foreign summits is seductive. But even in a global television age European leaders are still judged by what they do at home rather than abroad. Stick to that, Sarkozy. Ground yourself for a while. Otherwise, you may do worse than Tony Blair. You could become the gaffe-prone European whom your colleagues roll their eyes at when you turn your back – the new Berlusconi, the clown they grimly have to grin and bear.