Brown and Sarkozy: A potential power duo
If you believe in the attraction of opposites and trust among ambitious men, the new closeness between Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy could be a good thing for Europe.
If you weigh instead the fragility of politicians in a time of world economic upheaval and the deep contradictions of interests and instincts in France and Britain - ever hear of dirigistes or euroscepticism? - then you may cross off this 2008 rapprochement as another of the dalliances that have dotted the relationship over the last 40 years.
Right now, the positive take has a lot going for it:
It says that a Sarkozy-Brown meeting Monday, without Angela Merkel but including the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, signifies a capacity to seek urgent solutions for the global recession that go beyond old European confrontations between interventionist and laissez-faire policies.
It argues that Europe's ability to act is not automatically shackled by a Germany whose current indecisiveness and relative unpredictability means it could tell its European partners just six weeks ago it had too little confidence in them to put cash into a common bailout fund.
And it demonstrates real determination (although with significant variations in tone and degree) to make better financial market regulation on the world scale a fact in 2009.
All this, with Sarkozy still holding the European Union's rotating presidency and with Brown to serve as chairman of the G-7 and G-20 economic groupings next year, is intended to look like strong leadership.
And it almost does - but, as noted in conversations in different European capitals, with the caveats, limits and potential for breakdowns of a state-to-state relationship that is extremely personalized.
Generally, Sarkozy overwhelms people or is quickly bored with them. In Gordon Brown's case, he found a former finance minister like himself, who has been quicker and more fluently analytical in articulating remedies for aspects of the financial meltdown.
According to the British side, Sarkozy "doesn't try to bulldozer him. He doesn't defer, but he listens. He basically said to Brown, 'You design the policy. I'll find the right words and contribute leadership."'
The French line is, "Everything is easy in dealing with the English. Things are intuitive. There's a psychological compatibility."
Which, deciphered, shouts out what's already obvious: Sarkozy finds Brown easier work than Merkel.
What's not so plain is that Sarkozy sees in Brown a colleague who recognized his central role in bringing about the first expanded G-20 meeting in Washington last month. It was clearly a major initiative, providing for the entry of China, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia into global economic decision-making.
Can that be taken to mean Brown will preserve Sarkozy's mark on a bit of history - no small change for the self-involved French president - and keep him downstage center as a partner when the crisis group meets again, probably in April?
Call it a French assumption. But that is where the fragility of personalized diplomacy enters.
Here is a British version of this precariousness: Brown, I was told, "believes we are in the first crisis of the globalized age. He is interested in being the first person to find its answer."
The prime minister's response excludes an anti-capitalist "corralling of the Anglo-Saxon Wild West."
"What Sarkozy doesn't really seem to get," this British account says, "is that we're not for tearing up the system and shooting all the people in the hedge funds. We're not going to destroy vitality and energy. We want to regulate the system better, not destroy it."
Take that as meaning Britain favors modifications in market regulation, but no essential changes in its free-trade views or acceptance of the more heavily bridled capitalism Sarkozy wants. For the French themselves, the truth in the long run says German notions of economics and financial policy are probably closer to their own than Britain's are.
Tack on years of precedent and a list of current differences, and you can come out with an inconclusive projection - assuming Germany's return to greater coherence following elections next year - about the durability of this sunny French-British interval.
The Georges Pompidou-Edward Heath friendship of the 1970s had no real successor. Margaret Thatcher got interested in more European integration in the '80s, but without much of a French response. Jacques Chirac, en route to the presidency in the mid-'90s, spoke of Britain as France's new frontier, minus any visible follow-up.
Even the Francophile Tony Blair, with an open path to European leadership as EU president in 2005, backed off because it hardly seemed to enchant British public opinion.
But this moment - the world trudging into a recession with blackened perspectives - has its own new parameters for change.
Ironically, it is now Sarkozy who is the supplicant in the old cross-Channel relationship. His leverage with Germany seemingly suspended, his EU presidency at an end on Jan. 1, it is Sarkozy who has sought a place next to the Americanophile Brown in Europe's class picture.
These days, Sarkozy would take great precautions to avoid any reference to Britain possibly adopting the euro for fear of irritating Brown and jostling theiralliance de circonstance.
Yet Britain, comfortably and just short of explicitly, reached beyond stimulus packages and tax incentives to say no last week to Sarkozy's call (in support of Russian urging) for a summit next summer on a new European security architecture.
It's clearly a time that encourages bursts of frankness. Barack Obama's inauguration Jan. 20 magnifies that potential.
Under the circumstances, who's to say that Gordon Brown won't tell Sarkozy that sending more French troops to Afghanistan, where Britons are dying and Obama wants help, is a very good way to cement the relationships he needs most in the new year?