Sarkozy and the political potshot
PARIS: For a temporary job, being Europe's leader for six months is a tough one, battling for Master of the Universe status with limited firepower and wavering support for big ideas.
Nicolas Sarkozy tries. He has sprayed concepts, some of them good ones, like buckshot from a scattergun at international issues and problems.
Sarkozy can be bold, emotional and refreshing. But if you go back to July, when France took over the European Union's rotating presidency, his distinguishing feature as Europe's point man may be his institutionalizing of the political potshot in place of coherent policy - firing off noise-making, important-sounding projects or plans that for the most part don't or are unlikely to work.
In Europe, over the past months, his modus operandi has met with a reticent reaction from France's neighbors:
A Sarkozy plan to create a Mediterranean Union with France as its locus of power was a no-go until it was stripped of blatant French control. His call for Europe to set up an "economic government" was rejected out of hand. An attempt to keep himself on as president of the group of euro currency countries after the Czech Republic becomes the EU president on Jan. 1? Forget it.
Approaching the wider stages of the G-20 financial crisis meeting in Washington over the weekend and an EU-Russia summit meeting in Nice last Friday, Sarkozy's energy and eagerness - in truth, his thrusting at importance without the caliber of influence, consistency or number of divisions (to quote Stalin) to carry it off - was similar.
For starters: His attempt to take advantage of the presidential interregnum in the United States and turn a meeting on global economic misery into a new world financial charter bearing his imprint just didn't happen.
Yes, the inclusion of Russia, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia to the classic Western lineup of economic overseers was universally welcomed, although Sarkozy himself called the detailed results "not very glamorous."
But the meeting's regulatory recommendations came with individually stated caveats that they would be used "as appropriate" by participant countries. And reality said that instead of a 100-day action plan Sarkozy insisted a week earlier was imperative for the United States to accept, the reform process would wait to be revisited by May when he no longer speaks for Europe, and Barack Obama's voice will be dominant.
As a measure of Sarkozy's effective international weight, this was foreseeable.
What was not was Sarkozy's effort to become what the French press called "mediator" between Russia and the United States.
On Friday, startlingly, he said the Americans' (and Czechs' and Poles') plan to install an anti-missile shield against Iranian nukes "would bring nothing to European security." When Sarkozy made the comment, he was on a podium with Dmitri Medvedev, who the week before threatened to target missiles on EU and NATO countries. The Associated Press reported the Russian president smiled and pointed at Sarkozy in approval.
This was the same Sarkozy who has called Iranian nuclear weapons "inadmissible" and wants France to return to the NATO integrated command. On Saturday, after the Czechs and Poles said publicly that Sarkozy had no European mandate to talk about the missile shield, spoke without consultation and would have no influence on their decisions, Sarkozy shifted gears and acknowledged the shield could indeed parry a missile threat from Iran.
Before he did, Denis MacShane, who was Prime Minister Tony Blair's minister for Europe, attending a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Valencia, Spain, spoke of the group's "dismay" and said, "It looks as if Medvedev is playing Sarkozy for a fat, slow trout and reeling him in."
In fact, in a more generous interpretation, this was Sarkozy being Sarkozy, attracted to grand pronouncements and marking out a patch in history for himself, his mouth running ahead of reflection or his diplomats.
An adviser to Sarkozy offered this positive spin: "People are starting to understand how he works. He has an idea, says something serious, but not diplomatically, and then if necessary he'll correct himself. If there's a hullabaloo, he couldn't care less."
A senior U.S. official also sought to put an all's-well-that-ends-well tag on the incident. "I don't consider France is walking away from its commitment at the last NATO summit regarding the shield. Sarkozy may have gotten a little extra exuberance at the podium."
Still, Sarkozy's remark came in the context of his chairmanship of an EU-Russia summit meeting at which the EU lifted its suspension of talks on a strategic partnership agreement with Russia even though Moscow's troops are still in Georgia.
Piling the missile-shield remark on top of that was enough to tickle the suspicion among the EU and NATO members of the old Soviet bloc that the Sarko l'Américain of his 2007 election campaign was molting into the Sarkozy of equidistance between the United States and Russia.
Medvedev himself, behind Sarkozy's back, suggested he would not take bets on where the French scattergun might point next.
At a public discussion in Washington after the G-20 summit, Medvedev asked to stand to address the issue of the shield and Russian missiles. Then, gesticulating excitedly in what American news accounts called an imitation of Sarkozy, he assured his audience he would not speak "as emotionally" as the Frenchman.
It was the same Medvedev who a day earlier had pointedly shot down Sarkozy's notion of his greatest success during his time as Europe's postulant Master of the Universe: stopping the Russians from occupying all of Georgia.
To set history and Sarkozy's ego straight, Medvedev said, "I made the decision to stop operations" - before Sarkozy came to Moscow to discuss a cease-fire on Aug. 12.
Just FYI: The next scheduled French leadership semester at Europe's head, if the EU's rules don't change in the meanwhile, will not come until after 2020.