Israel is thrilled. Since May, the Elysee Palace has been ruled by a president who views the establishment of the Jewish state as "the central event in the 20th century." He has vowed to help stymie the establishment of Hamastan in Gaza, and never to compromise Israel's security.
It may or may not be connected to his "Jewish genes," but Nicolas Sarkozy is perceived as one of ours. He has an Israeli temperament, too, going berserk when probed about personal issues during a television interview, calling his aide an idiot on live TV, and threatening to fight a fisherman who insulted him.
The French are also pleased with their unconventional leader. "The French Republic disappeared somewhere between Cinderella's castle and the roller coaster," a paper wrote this week after Sarkozy revealed his affair with singer-model Carla Bruni at EuroDisney, of all places. He has turned the Elysee into a perpetual reality show, wrote Le Monde. He's a solo contestant on "Big Brother," a soap opera star who began as "Desperate Housewives" and morphed into "The Brave and the Beautiful." The magic kingdom Sarkozy built is one of celebs and camera flashes, the realm of Rolexes, yachts and designer sunglasses.
Some 56 percent of the French support their "tele-president," nicknamed the "bionic president" and the "Speedy Gonzales of international diplomacy." But the former tennis star Yannick Noah - voted the most popular Frenchman of them all in a poll last week - thinks he's nauseating.
"Everything appalls me," he told Le Journal du Dimanche. "The attitude, the tone, the arrogance, the cynicism, the flaunted wealth, his manipulation of the media to present his personal life."
Socialist leader Segolene Royal (who'd won Noah's vote) complains he has forged a dangerous foreign policy, "a policy of appearances" that range from improvisation to provocation, a policy of unexpected turns, frequent contradictions and a tendency to lavish unobtainable promises that impair France's credibility and international status.
During his campaign, Sarkozy vowed that France "would not compromise any more on preserving democracy, respect for human rights and proper administration." In his first speech as president-elect, he vowed to adopt "moral diplomacy" and declared France would stand by the oppressed of the world. He named Bernard Kouchner, a leftist champion of humanitarian action, as foreign minister, and appointed a young Muslim woman of Senegalese origin, Rama Yade, as secretary of state for human rights. These moves led everybody to expect dramatic changes in France's foreign policy, an end to the image of a hypocritical France willing to sell its soul for crude oil.
The higher the expectations, the harder the fall. Two weeks ago a convoy of limousines carrying Muammar Gadhafi paralyzed traffic in Paris as it moved from the Elysee to the Ritz, between the Louvre and the giant khaki tent the Libyan leader had erected in the heart of the city. That traffic shutdown, at the height of International Human Rights Day, upset the French much less than the warm embrace the guest received.
Gadhafi foreswore terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in 2003, condemned al-Qaeda and even compensated the families of those killed in the Pan-Am and UTA plane bombings. He deserves a reward for his conversion, and he was redeemed, partially at least, when the former prime ministers of Britain and Italy, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, visited Tripoli, and Romano Prodi, as president of the European Commission, received him in Brussels. But they greeted him with clenched lips, while Sarkozy declared his delight in welcoming Gadhafi to the City of Light.
Right before his visit to Paris, the "guide of the Libyan revolution" addressed Portuguese students in Lisbon, where the Euro-African summit was being held. He said one could understand the weak countries that resort to terrorism against the superpowers.
When Yade declared, "Our country is not a rug on which leaders - whether terrorists or not - can wipe their feet of their victims' blood," Sarkozy summoned her to the palace for a 20-minute excoriation, says an Elysee source. Kouchner snubbed the dinner for Gadhafi: By happy coincidence, he said, he had to be in Brussels. But he also told the press, "At these hard times, do our manufacturers have to leave the Libyan market to European competitors?" During Gadhafi's visit, French companies signed contracts worth billions of euros. Sarkozy's policy is diplomacy in the service of trade, The Economist wrote after the visit. Author Pascal Bruckner was sharper: Even when you do business with the devil, you don't have to wallow with him in the muck, he said.
Blinded by interests
"Germany also has economic interests in its relations with other countries, mainly with Russia as a supplier of oil and gas, and China as a gigantic, tempting market," Yossi Sarid wrote for Haaretz. "Yet these interests do not blind Chancellor Angela Merkel ... During a recent visit to Russia, Merkel met with opponents of the regime, to the consternation of her hosts. In September she hosted the Dalai Lama in her office, despite Beijing's threats. Merkel does not allow herself to be silent. She's no George Bush or Gerhard Schroeder ... nor is she Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak, who speak or fall silent at their convenience."
Sarid didn't mention Sarkozy, but Le Monde did it for him. In an editorial, the paper noted the difference between the chancellor, who doesn't shy from addressing human rights and democracy, no matter whom her interlocutor, and the French president, who takes advantage of Europe's inability to formulate a united policy on these issues to stand by leaders with poor human rights records.
Shortly before visiting China in November, Sarkozy ordered Yade to unpack her bags, leaving the human rights secretary home in order not to irritate the Chinese. In Beijing, he appeased his hosts at the expense of the "freest democracy in Asia." "Taiwan is an integral part of China's territory. France does not support its independence," he said when leaving Beijing, contracts worth $20 billion in hand.
Although the European Union deemed the Duma elections crooked, Sarkozy called Vladimir Putin to congratulate him. He was the only western leader to do so.
Hero or joke
He's a friend of Iran's president, and a man whose enmity for the U.S. and the West is legendary. Nevertheless, Hugo Chavez received red-carpet treatment when he visited Paris in November. The Venezuelan president was invited to discuss efforts to secure the release of Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002 by the FARC, the Marxist guerrilla organization. Sarkozy, who said obtaining Betancourt's freedom was top priority, hoped that Chavez, who has ties to the FARC, would obtain her imminent release. In an unusual step, Sarkozy also contacted the FARC leader on video, calling on him to release the captives. Some officials in Paris suggested taking in FARC members imprisoned in Colombia, as part of a deal to secure the release of Betancourt and her friends. The guerrilla movement has rejected the idea, and is calling for the ouster of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, whom Chavez calls "a marionette of the Americans."
Sarkozy's conduct regarding Betancourt reveals he is a Machiavellian willing even to negotiate with an organization on the EU terror list to achieve his ends. If Sarkozy does indeed achieve his goal, the "leftist bleeding hearts" will shut up and he'll be a hero. If he fails, he'll be a sad joke, a leader whose principles are tenuous to the point of nonexistence.
When Sarkozy threatens
In September 2006, Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal visited the Lebanese parliament. A member of the foreign affairs committee, a Hezbollah representative, compared Israel's occupation of the territories to the Nazi occupation of France. Royal did not react and later claimed she hadn't heard him. Sarkozy and his colleagues on the right exploited the incident to slam her "unforgivable" mistake. They also criticized her meeting with a Hezbollah representative, even though he was an elected member of parliament. "Hitler was also elected, but that didn't make him a respectable interlocutor," Sarkozy said at the time.
Seven months later, in July 2007, Sarkozy's France invited all the Lebanese parliamentary factions to Paris, including Hezbollah. Israel's muted protest, and the French Jews' loud protest, were rejected. "Hezbollah is an important political player in Lebanon," the Elysee Palace stated.
When Royal speaks of Sarkozy's frequent contradictions, she apparently also is referring to his decision to renew dialogue with Damascus, ending the boycott started by Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy has called Bashar Assad three times and sent Kouchner to Beirut seven times, yet Lebanon's stalled presidential elections have been postponed 11 times so far. In their latest conversation, Sarkozy gave Assad an ultimatum: Let Lebanon's election be held by Saturday, December 22, or Sarkozy would speak up and it would hurt. Assad must have laughed: Until then he'd been told to stay out of Lebanon and here he was being asked to wield influence. As his deputy, Farouk Shara, says, Syria's influence has not been so strong since its withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.
War, yes and no
When it comes to the Iranian nuclear threat, France has taken the strongest stand in Europe. Sarkozy started the call for European sanctions, to circumvent the Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council. He also stated that they wanted to avoid facing "a dilemma of disasters: an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran" - meaning, he was willing to contemplate war.
But France seems inconsistent: On September 16, Kouchner told the French channel RTL that France was prepared for the worst, namely war. Iran then threatened to cancel a joint project with the French oil company Total, Germany howled about "erroneous threats of war" and even the U.S. Department of State said that for the moment, it was pursuing diplomatic means. Two days later, Kouchner lambasted the press for twisting his words and Sarkozy told the International Herald Tribune that he himself doesn't use the word "war."
On November 18, the day after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report describing Tehran's growing cooperation, Haaretz asked Kouchner if France would participate in a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, should things come to that. The minister adopted Sarkozy's formula of keeping all options open.
"I intend to continue with great determination along this path [of pressuring Iran], which is the only way to bring about an agreed solution and prevent us from having, one day, to be faced with a dilemma of 'an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran,'" he said. The next day he again complained of media manipulations and said the Haaretz headline, "Not ruling out strike on Iran," was "horrible."
Less than a month later, on December 13, it turned out that the word "war" is in Sarkozy's lexicon. Talking with Le Nouvel Observateur, he stated that he never has advocated war, but added that the danger of war with Iran does exist.
Make no mistake - Sarkozy is the most dominant leader in Europe today, and he stands out on the global dais, too. Internally he's pushing reforms that nobody dared try before him. He's the living spirit behind the Lisbon Treaty, a constitution in all but name for Europe. Internationally he's ending a 40-year streak of pro-Arab and anti-America diplomacy, which had aimed to position France as a counterweight to the U.S. Israel attests to a sea change in bilateral relations, too.
Some of Sarkozy's rebuttals to critics make sense. For instance, he calls for embracing errant rulers who repent, and tempering idealism with realism. Indeed, no leader can afford to disavow realpolitik. But as Dominique Moisi wrote in the Financial Times, diplomacy is the art of nuances, and nuances are not Sarkozy's forte. His constant, keen desire to fix the world and his Machiavellian tactics tend to blind him and distance him from his grand promises of a new kind of diplomacy, free of cynicism and narrow interests.