When Nicolas Sarkozy was campaigning for president last year, he promised “action, change, rupture”. Whatever one thought of “Sarko”, there was little question that he meant what he said. After 12 years of vacillating waffle from Jacques Chirac, French voters were reassured by such directness and duly elected him over the gaffe-prone Socialist Ségolène Royal.
For better or for worse, President Sarkozy has clearly begun to deliver on his promise to shake up the economy with pro-business reforms. He has raised the retirement age for public sector workers, facing down a nationwide transport strike last autumn. And just before the summer recess, he passed a law which effectively scraps the 35-hour working week.
But in foreign policy, Sarkozy’s record has been one of cynicism and incompetence. His embrace of the world’s worst dictators makes the usually thug-tolerant Jacques Chirac look like a man of principle.
Yet Sarkozy was once branded “an American neo-conservative with a French passport” by Eric Besson, who later defected from the opposition to be appointed a junior minister. The candidate’s rhetoric suggested these were not just political swearwords; for he promised both transatlantic rapprochement and a new moral dimension to foreign policy, sounding at times like a Gallic Paul Wolfowitz. He denounced the “silence” of the international community over Chechnya and Darfur and pledged to clean up the murky world of Franco-African relations. His choice of Bernard Kouchner, the Socialist founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and long-term supporter of “humanitarian intervention”, as foreign minister seemed to confirm a desire to break with the grubby Realpolitik of his predecessor.
But within weeks it became clear that idealism was off the agenda. Judging by Sarkozy’s tired and emotional state at a press conference following his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, there had been more toasts than hard talk about human rights. Two days after Russia’s invasion of Georgia this month, Sarkozy was on a plane to Tbilisi where he rustled up a six-point plan which was signed…and duly ignored by the Russians, who have exploited the ambiguities of the hastily drafted text. Sarkozy then threatened the Kremlin with calling an EU summit, which must have had Putin and Medvedev quaking in their Cuban heels. Undeterred, and with Russian tanks still inside Georgia, Sarkozy bizarrely declared the crisis a victory for European unity despite Gordon Brown going AWOL and Silvio Berlusconi blaming the Georgians for everything. Sarkozy is right that Europe needs to develop a common policy to stop Russia pushing it around but that should not be one of capitulation.
Sarkozy has been similarly craven and clumsy in his policy towards Africa.
His first visit to the continent last July began with a speech in Dakar laden with racist, pretentious clichés about how “African man” had “not fully entered into history” and had “no idea of progress”. His next stop was to visit Omar Bongo, President of Gabon, world’s longest serving dictator, and lynchpin of the Françafrique – the name given to the system of corrupt neo-colonialism which has defined France’s relations with its former colonies and which Sarkozy had criticised prior to becoming president. His development minister, Jean-Marie Bockel was even more explicit, announcing in January that he wanted to “sign the death warrant of la Françafrique.” Two months later, Bockel was pushed aside into the insignificant Ministry for Veterans. According to La Lettre du Continent, an insider newsletter about African politics, Bockel’s sacking was ordered by Bongo himself. He threatened to reveal four decades worth of Franco-African dirt if Bockel was not removed.
The editor of La Lettre du Continent Antoine Glaser said in a telephone interview that Sarkozy’s policy towards Africa has always been about disengagement rather than “rupture”. The early pro-democracy rhetoric was just a “game”, he said, prepared by his now sacked spokesman David Martinon. According to Glaser, the Françafrique has been weakened by larger factors and Sarkozy’s real interest is to limit the continent’s “nuisance value”, particularly as a source of illegal immigrants.
Nevertheless, Glaser said Bockel’s sacking shows that Sarkozy has had difficulty managing pro-French African heads of state.
A sense of disorganisation and governmental disunity is apparent throughout Sarkozy’s foreign policy. The Dakar speech was written by his special adviser, Henri Guaino, a nostalgic nationalist whose overt hostility to European integration is far out of step with official policy. Guaino was also responsible for opening an unprecedented breach in Franco-German relations with his proposal for a “Mediterranean Union”, which he carelessly compared to the creation of the European Union itself without consulting Berlin. The scaled-down “Club Med” was launched amid much fanfare in July but no-one seems to know what the body will actually do — aside from provide a platform where kleptocratic gangsters can look like statesmen. Indeed, there is no agreement on how it will be funded or where it will be headquartered.
Muammar Gaddafi may have (literally) pitched his tent across the road from the Elysée last year. But the most grotesque spectacle was reserved for July when Syrian President Bachar el Assad was invited to attend the annual Bastille Day parade down the Champs Elysées. Chirac had broken off high-level contacts with Assad in 2005 after the assassination of his friend, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, accusing the Syrian president of involvement. Assad’s father Hafez, who handed over power to his son eight years ago, was moreover suspected of being behind an attack on French soldiers in Lebanon in 1983 which killed 58.
However, on Bastille Day, Assad was in the front row to hear the actor Kad Merad read out the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The taint of hypocrisy was too great even for Chirac who busied himself elsewhere.
The best the Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has built a career out of defending human rights, could say was that he was not “especially amused” by Assad’s visit. Kouchner’s appointment was more about depriving the opposition of one of its most popular figures than re-orienting policy. French foreign ministers are traditionally presidential sidekicks who discreetly carry out the Elysée’s orders. Kouchner was never going to fulfil this role so he has been marginalised from day one. The real power is held by Sarkozy’s three-in-one diplomatic adviser, sherpa, and head of an embryonic American-style National Security Agency, Jean-David Levitte along with the Elysée Chief of Staff Claude Guéant.
The foreign minister has also played little role in concocting Sarkozy’s diplomatic spectaculars such as the release of Ingrid Betancourt. The official version began to unravel within days of her release with plausible reports that a large bribe was paid. There is no question of French involvement but Sarkozy’s relentless, manipulative pressure on Columbian President Alvaro Uribe has not endeared him to Latin American leaders.
Sarkozy may be welcome in Washington, where he has won support for European defence — a priority for the French EU presidency.
But the president’s tawdry willingness to embrace any leader who signs a few export contracts is as undignified as his regular appearances draped across Carla Bruni in Paris Match.