Sarkozy winning over his EU colleagues
PARIS: Hyperactive, overbearing and unpredictable. Such was the damning verdict many European neighbors had
unofficially rendered about President Nicolas Sarkozy as France took over the presidency of the European Union in July.
three months later, the very characteristics that made British and German officials cringe have proved effective, even essential,
in forging a swift European response to two major crises: the Georgia-Russia war and the ongoing global financial turmoil.
one grudgingly admiring German diplomat put it, speaking anonymously because of the delicacy of the subject, "In a time
of crisis, hyperactive becomes energetic, overbearing becomes dogged, and unpredictable becomes pragmatic."
Europe's longtime enfant terrible, is on a roll - even if partly by accident.
As recently as last spring, it was
Sarkozy's erratic side that made headlines, an image reinforced by a whirlwind romance and marriage to his glamorous third
wife, the model-turned-singer Carla Bruni.
Then came a tough summer and an even tougher autumn. War on Europe's
edge, in Georgia, 10 French soldiers killed in an Afghan ambush and the realization that the U.S. banking crisis would not
spare Europe brought out a different kind of leader.
"Sarkozy is a leader for crisis; he is a frontline leader,"
said Denis MacShane, a former British minister for European affairs. "He thrives on the adrenaline, he wants to bring
people together, and he is willing to take decisions."
Certainly, an EU presidency that had been declared dead
before it even started after Irish voters the bloc's reform treaty in June has been a roller-coaster of activity.
Sarkozy's watch, a Continent that is always divided pulled together sufficiently to unite behind his efforts to coax Moscow
into a peace deal with Tbilisi by threatening to suspend talks on a strategic partnership.
And when it became evident
that only a Europe-wide response would calm jittery financial markets, Sarkozy brokered a regional rescue plan that had the
very un-French characteristic of being inspired by a British proposal.
In each case, success came only with his hallmark
persistence and disregard for previous failure. In August, the French president had to travel to Moscow twice to get what
he wanted. And after a first round of European crisis talks on the financial crisis yielded few results on Oct. 4, he tried
again a week later.
Sarkozy, who has guided France to a steadily more Atlanticist stance since taking office in May
2007, seemed most proud of Europe's ability to lead where the United States then followed.
Europe, has done more than the United States in total amounts," a beaming Sarkozy told journalists in outlining the French
rescue package at the Élysée Palace on Monday.
Indeed, a visibly confident president casually announced
that he now planned to sell his vision to the United States. He is meeting President George W. Bush on Saturday, and hopes
to organize an extraordinary meeting of the world's most important developed and emerging economies "within weeks."
was almost, some officials said, as if Sarkozy had given the world a glimpse of what the EU could be if it spoke consistently
with one voice. Too bad, said Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, that France's turn at the rotating
six-month EU presidency will end in December.
"Unfortunately this is not sustainable," Fischer said, "because
on Jan. 1 the Czechs will take over."
Circumstance played its part in Sarkozy's turning around his image in
recent weeks. France, under any president, had a better shot at negotiating a deal with Russia than EU states that are smaller
or more critical of Moscow.
Fischer also noted the "vacuum of American leadership" that helped to focus Europe
on pulling together.
The twin crises also helped Sarkozy avoid what might otherwise have become tedious debates miring
France's presidency over Turkey's ambitions to join the EU or agricultural subsidies.
"He was in a way
very lucky to preside over these crises," said Salome Zourabichvili, the former Georgian foreign minister. "Georgia
was also lucky to have him - and France - in the presidency. Sarkozy earned the dividends of Chirac's complacent Russia
policy. For once, this long friendship between Russia and France actually paid off."
Fellow Europeans had worried
that Sarkozy would use Europe mainly as a backdrop for his national agenda, cutting bilateral deals, defending French farmers,
truckers and fishermen, and protecting French industry.
Since coming into office, Sarkozy has repeatedly lobbied for
lower interest rates and criticized the European Central Bank. After the Irish no vote, Sarkozy blamed Peter Mandelson, the
EU trade commissioner at the time, for compromising too much in world trade talks.
Fischer described the new united
front between Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Sarkozy on the financial crisis as born of necessity.
Merkel is very Protestant and Mr. Sarkozy is, well, very French," Fischer said.
Meanwhile, smaller and newer member
states resent what they see as high-handedness from Paris.
"Documents are all in French," said one diplomat
from an East European country who asked not to be identified for fear of annoying the French. "Translations come either
late or not at all. That causes complications in some capitals."
Sarkozy's style of high-wire diplomacy often
means abrupt changes. He simply switched the venue of the EU's summit meeting on Ukraine from Evian to Paris the afternoon
before the event, stranding officials and journalists.
During the financial crisis, the Oct. 4 summit meeting in Paris
was convened with no clear idea of an outcome, and may have been counterproductive.
In Paris, though, there is pride
in Sarkozy's new glow.
"The crises have made him look presidential, at home and abroad," said Hubert Védrine,
the former French foreign minister. "He is in the process of changing his image. Now he has to follow through and implement
"He has proved himself as a firefighter," Vedrine added. "But is he an architect?"