Global Economics

France's Sarkozy Goes His Own Way


His actions in Libya are a clear example of the new French President's maverick attitude toward negotiations

Nicolas Sarkozy is a man constantly on the move. He practically hops around in his suit. He shrugs his shoulders, jerks his head and raises his eyebrows. In his manner, he likens a bouncing ball, full of energy but completely unpredictable. Since his election in early May, the French president has been ricocheting through European diplomatic circles like an out-of-control comet.

Sarkozy is everywhere and, more importantly, constantly ahead of the curve -- particularly in France. He is the first French president to include several women from minority backgrounds in his cabinet and he has had no qualms about recruiting cabinet ministers from the ranks of his Socialist Party rivals. One day he appears in public with singer Barbara Streisand. The next he is pictured alongside the top riders in the Tour de France.

And he is shaking things up abroad too. At the G-8 summit of the world's most powerful leaders in the German seaside resort of Heiligendamm, he told US President George W. Bush that he would leave the summit unless Bush made a serious commitment to climate protection. The US president relented, and Sarkozy fêted himself as the knight in shining armor in the dispute over global warming.

At the European Union summit in Brussels in June, he convinced the stubborn Poles to support the simplified European Union treaty. German Chancellor and then-EU Council President Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, may have done most of the legwork to bring about the agreement but Sarkozy behaved as if bringing Poland's ruling Kaczynski brothers on board was entirely his doing. The way Sarkozy described it, he was the one who had managed to rescue the EU from one of its many, great historical crises.

The small-statured Sarkozy has assumed the role of the great statesman. Slapping shoulders, patting backs and distributing kisses, he leaves the impression of success in his wake. His approach is allowing the French to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After many years of near-paralysis, the country is assuming the leadership of an increasingly lethargic EU.

This, at least, is the impression Sarkozy would like to make. His European partners can only look on in speechless astonishment as Sarkozy rushes ahead. The crowing of the Gallic rooster is replacing the European anthem as Europe acquires a leader who has shown himself willing to flaunt tradition. His will, it appears, is the road to success.

There is only one problem: Sarkozy's victories are stolen victories. He is steadily co-opting successes which, in some cases, others have spent years diligently preparing. His policies are intended to radiate dynamism and energy. But in reality, he jumps from one issue to the next -- with apparently no system or coherence, but with a great deal of fanfare and fireworks.

His European counterparts are witnessing this spectacle with increasing annoyance. Instead of being a team player, Sarkozy likes to take the lead, even when he has contributed little to the team's successes.

Sarkozys Suceed Where EU Negotiators Fail?

Sarkozy barely waited 24 hours after Libyan authorities had released the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor before turning up in Tripoli to meet with Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi. Was it not far too soon?

No, of course not, Sarkozy would say. Others were there before him, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. "Others came to Libya, even though the process to secure the release had not even begun yet. I said that I would go to Libya once the problem with the nurses had been resolved. It's better to arrive afterwards than before," the French president said, in a self-confident reversal of the actual sequence of events.

It was early last Tuesday morning, just before 6 a.m., when Claude Gueant's mobile phone rang. Gueant, the secretary-general at the presidential palace and one of the most loyal members of the president's staff was boarding a plane in Tripoli. "Hello Claude, how far are you?" his boss asked. "We are just boarding, Mr. President," Gueant responded. "Are the nurses with you? Would you connect me to them?"

A few journalists were listening in when Sarkozy congratulated Bulgarian nurse Kristiana Valtsheva on her release. "This is the most wonderful day of my life," Valtsheva said. It lasted all of a few seconds, but officials at the Elysee Palace in Paris quickly saw to it that the conversation was made public.

The French presidential plane -- with the words "Republique francaise" highly visible in the TV coverage -- brought the former prisoners to Sofia. They were accompanied by Sarkozy's wife Cecilia, who acted as the unofficial head of the negotiations. The French constitution does not define the status of the country's first lady, but her desire to play an important, behind-the-scenes role was obvious. Sarkozy praised the "courage, sincerity, humanity and panache" of his wife, who has contributed her fair share to making his life difficult. Had the Sarkozys somehow achieved something that EU negotiators had failed to do in more than three years? Sarkozy, in any event, had no qualms about claiming all the credit for himself.

The French president then signed five agreements during his visit with the Libyan dictator, the most important of which related to defense, weapons and nuclear energy. France plans to sell the Gadhafi regime its first nuclear power plant, which the Libyans will allegedly use for desalinization -- a process that consumes a great deal of energy but is not necessarily dependent on nuclear power.

The French president's astounding export agreement with Libya raised hackles in Berlin, triggering outrage across the entire political spectrum. Sarkozy's commitment is "highly questionable from a security standpoint," said Reinhard Bütikofer, the head of Germany's Green Party. He described Sarkozy's behavior as "reckless and tinged with nationalism," adding that the French move will only make it easier for Gadhafi to obtain nuclear weapons.

Part 2: European Union Sidelined by Deals

Ulrich Kelber, deputy leader of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group, accused the French president of having taken advantage of the political wrangling over the nurses' release to score major contracts for French companies. The move, Kelber added, is something one would in fact expect from egomaniacal dictators, and "even makes US President George W. Bush seem like a choirboy by comparison." The affair brings to mind the recent dispute between the Germans and the French over the leadership of Airbus' parent company, EADS.

The EU Commission in Brussels felt completely sidelined by the problematic deal. Despite consensus within the EU that its member states should be pursuing a common foreign and security policy, the Commission chose to treat France's agreement to supply Libya with the nuclear power plant as a bilateral arrangement. It was nonetheless telling that Austrian EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, after meeting with Sarkozy, insisted that she accompany Cecilia Sarkozy on her second whirlwind trip to Tripoli. Although once she was there Ferrero-Waldner had little clout.

German junior Foreign Minister Gernot Erler, a Social Democrat, even went so far as to describe Sarkozy's solo venture as a violation of German interests. The nuclear power plant deal is actually to be handled by a subsidiary of Areva, a French nuclear holding company in which German electronics giant Siemens holds a 34 percent stake.

Four years ago Gadhafi agreed to abandon any plans to produce weapons of mass destruction, but suspicions have lingered. It is undoubtedly in Europe's interest to rehabilitate the dictator, who has been blamed for numerous attacks, including the 1986 bombing of Berlin's La Belle nightclub and the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. But Libya is still a country that pays little heed to human rights. Which is why it was more than a little strange to see the young French junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, standing at her boss's side in Tripoli and beaming at the Libyan dictator.

None of this troubles the French president, who appears willing to negotiate with anyone. "If you dare to say that civilian nuclear energy should be reserved for the northern shore of the Mediterranean and that the Arab world is not responsible enough for civilian nuclear energy then you're humiliating them and preparing for a clash of civilizations," Sarkozy said unabashedly. He spoke as if the dispute over Iran's nuclear plans and evidence of Libya's involvement in earlier terrorist attacks had suddenly vanished. And then the French president made himself even more clear: "Libya is a country that has both the means and the need," Sarkozy added, alluding to the fact that the oil-producing North African nation has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. But international sanctions imposed on the country up until 2003 have severely restricted the development of Libya's infrastructure.

Since then France had lagged behind both the Germans and the British when it came to investing in Libya, and now Sarkozy wants to make up for lost time. Part of the logic behind his plan is the dream of a "Mediterranean Union" stretching from Morocco to Egypt, with France acting as the link to Europe.

Sarkozy, formerly a successful interior minister, has usually been unrelenting when it comes to fighting terrorism. But now he has proven himself to be the henchman of a despot who converted European hostages into cold cash -- a strategy that is anything but laudable.

The president insists there is absolutely no connection between his visit, the French-Libyan agreements and the release of the Bulgarian nurses and the doctor. But Sarkozy did admit: "I would not have come if they had not been released." In other words, Gadhafi clearly used the prisoners as a bargaining chip.

A Maverick in Europe

Right up until shortly before their departure the Libyan dictator made it clear, both at home abroad, that the prisoners were completely under his control. They were forced to complete a series of inconvenient bureaucrat formalities in the presence of the Bulgarian envoy before being allowed to board their plane. The Libyans demanded that the Palestinian doctor sign a statement indicating which country he wanted to be flown to. Before taking off from Libyan soil the doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, said: "You have destroyed my life and the lives of the nurses."

Sarkozy has now pawned his credibility by becoming the partner of an unpredictable ruler, a man with whom the West has never been entirely comfortable. Gadhafi has long been pushing for a key role in a project to establish an "African Union" -- a large, continental federation similar to the EU. Now he has managed to secure the support of Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy for his plan.

Sarkozy has only been the new master at the Elysee Palace for just over two months. But even this short amount of time has been enough to reveal that he is a maverick in Europe, a man who seeks to maximize his own advantage without serving the interests of the European Union. Sarkozy unflinchingly champions French interests -- as well as his own -- treating the Franco-German friendship as nothing but outdated, romantic sentimentality. In his mind, only those members of the EU who have amends to make should be asked to make sacrifices.

After his visit to the Libyan capital, Sarkozy flew on to the Senegalese capital Dakar, where he sought to win the support of Africa's youth for a new partnership with Europe and the French mother country. Then he continued to Libreville in Gabon, another former French colony, to campaign for sustainable development. Unlike his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who maintained good relations with Africa's dictators as long as they professed to a belief in the traditional friendship with France, Sarkozy wanted to introduce moral principles into foreign policy. But despite these seemingly noble visions, it seems Sarkozy is ultimately only interested in oil, natural gas and uranium -- all natural resources which Gadhafi has in abundance. They will come at a high price for Sarkozy: respectability, cash, weapons and nuclear power.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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