Every so often French leaders emerge who believe their destiny is to rule Europe.
Napoleon might have succeeded had he not foolishly tried to add Russia to his European conquests. De Gaulle employed his own unique brand of diplomacy and used the fledgling European Economic Community as his vehicle, but an arrogant disregard for unrest at home and an untimely intervention into Canadian politics over the Quebec issue isolated him and eventually brought him down.
Now there is a new man on the scene.
At first sight French President Nicolas Sarkozy is an unlikely heir to the Little Corporal and Le General. The son of a Hungarian refugee who fled the 1956 uprising, he had been a Gaullist since childhood, but seemed destined to play out his political life in local government politics until then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur plucked him from obscurity to be his spokesman and Minister for the Budget in 1993.
Sarkozy’s natural charm earned him friends in high places. Jacques Chirac regarded him as a protégée until they fell out when he backed Balladur against Chirac in the 1995 presidential poll, and on the way up as Minister of the Interior and then Finance Minister, he took every opportunity to promote himself as the man most qualified to lead France.
Having achieved that target in May 2007, Sarkozy has shown no sign of letting up on the pace. His biographer, Anita Hausser, describes him as “hyperactive, ambitious, a workaholic who never rests”, but where to from here?
At the midpoint of his five-year term, there are clear signs he is losing interest in some of the minutia of domestic politics. The sweeping grand designs of the election campaign and early months of his presidency - he promised to revive the work ethic, promote innovation and fight intolerance - have largely come to nothing, and his popularity has declined as the French economy grinded into the teeth of the Global Financial Crisis.
Moreover, he has become impatient with the French and international media’s obsession with his private life - his divorce and then speedy third marriage to former model and singer Carla Bruni - and his taste for Rolex watches and luxury yacht holidays.
He has used colourful language in describing young vandals and petty criminals in outer Paris suburbs as scum and riff-raff and courted ridicule by using built-up heels to boost his 167cm height while trying to always get himself photographed beside people of equal or lesser stature.
But as Sarkozy’s love affair with France’s internal politics waned, his interest in the wider European and global stage has taken up more of his energies. The opportunity came with the six-month French Presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2008.
During a whirlwind of diplomacy he engineered a deal on energy and climate change, adopted a pact on immigration and asylum, reviewed the contentious Common Agricultural Policy and launched the Union of the Mediterranean, bringing countries mainly in North Africa, and the Middle East, into closer association with the EU. He faced up to the Irish “no” vote over the Lisbon Treaty, advocated an EU inquiry into the war in Georgia and was proactive as the economic crisis deepened.
Professor of International Affairs at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, Maxime Lefebvre, tellingly described Sarkozy’s style as “Bonapartist” in his eagerness to achieve his political aims, while admitting he was efficient “probably because he and his teams showed their ability to genuinely and relevantly define and implement European general interests”.
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