Shaking Up the Continent; Nicolas Sarkozy's Showboating Has Made Him Very Popular at Home. but Abroad, It's a Different Story

By Kushner, Adam B. | Newsweek International, September 3, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Shaking Up the Continent; Nicolas Sarkozy's Showboating Has Made Him Very Popular at Home. but Abroad, It's a Different Story


Kushner, Adam B., Newsweek International


Byline: Adam B. Kushner (With Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Nick Hayes in London)

There is no doubting Nicolas Sarkozy's energy. In his first 100 days, the French president has palled around with George W. Bush in Maine (mending the relationship with the United States), capped the individual tax rate at 50 percent and allowed his wife to take credit for freeing hostages in Libya. His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, headed to Baghdad last week, and argued the world must take a greater role in Iraq. Yet for all his energy and accomplishment, Sarkozy has also ruffled feathers around Europe.

Once hailed as a fresh face who was elected with a mandate to change France, he is behaving, to some, as if he had a mandate to lead all of Europe. What's more, while Sarkozy has equivocated between state power and market solutions at home, on the European stage his statist side has come to the fore. He has lectured a European summit on the upside of trade protection, pushed for an enduring French role in the European consortium that owns Airbus and pressed eurozone ministers to grant France more time to cut deficit spending. Perhaps most surprisingly, his government proposed greater political control over the independent European Central Bank, and then suggested the euro group serve as a counterbalance to the bank, threatening a cornerstone of freedom and efficiency in the European common market.

In polite conversation, continental leaders say they're reserving judgment on the newbie president. But Sarkozy's early moves have also won him appellations like "an irritation," a "grandstander" and "a little Napoleon." In part, the European frustration with Sarkozy is a matter of contrasting styles. To many, his international forays reek of showmanship. The ambiguous role of his glamorous wife, Cecilia, in rescuing the hostages rankled his European allies, who had spent years negotiating their release. They were infuriated as well by the subsequent news that he'd struck a deal to sell Tripoli weapons and a nuclear power plant. "With the Libyan deal, he has shown himself to be an arch-opportunist," says Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

More than that, the young (52-year-old) president is worlds apart from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, an old hand at European-style consensus-building. Sarkozy has little time or patience for such diplomatic niceties, says Patrick Weil, a political scientist at the University of Paris 1-Sorbonne. By contrast, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, prefers to share the limelight and build consensus. "She likes to take the best from each argument and say the sum is better than its parts," says Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. "Sarkozy doesn't see disagreements in the same vein. He sees them more as zero sum."

Sarkozy has also raised eyebrows on matters of substance. Soon after he became France's new president, for example, he unexpectedly announced that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an economist and a heavyweight from the Socialist Party he'd just defeated, would be the French nominee to head the IMF.

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