Global role offers Sarkozy fresh ammunition

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

  • Published
French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at the end of the EU summit, Brussels, 17 December 2010Image source, AFP
Image caption,
We can expect a policy statement for 2011 soon from France's President Sarkozy

The first half of January in France is taken up with an elaborate series of ceremonies known as the presidential "voeux", or New Year's wishes.

In one of those monarchical throwbacks in which the Fifth Republic abounds, the head of state receives delegations representing the "constitutional bodies and living forces" of the nation.

After passing on his "voeux" the president addresses the assembly of business leaders/ farmers/ trade unionists/ soldiers/ diplomats and delivers what amounts to a policy statement for the year ahead.

This January, we can be sure, one theme will recur in these presidential utterances: French leadership in a troubled world.

On 1 January Nicolas Sarkozy takes over as head of the G8 group of industrialised nations. Since November, he has also been at the helm of the G20 group of developed and emerging nations.

Global stage

For a leader fond of the limelight the positions offer a god-sent opening for his trademark hyperactivity - this time on a global stage.

Already his diary for January is filling up with G-related foreign trips.

He sees Barack Obama in Washington on 20 January, attends the Davos economic gathering on 27 January, then flies to Addis Ababa for a summit of the African Union.

The G8 will hold its summit in the Normandy resort of Deauville in May, with the G20 convening in Cannes in November. In between, the president plans several themed meetings on issues like currency stabilisation, the internet and aid to Africa.

But for Mr Sarkozy, progress on the big international subjects is not the only - or even the most important - goal for the months ahead.

Image source, Reuters
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A leading role globally could boost Mr Sarkozy's domestic ratings

If he devotes so much of his New Year voeux to the G8 and the G20, it will also be with more domestic calculations in mind.

The year 2010 was a disaster for the French president. What with strikes, scandals and the general economic gloom, his poll ratings are now at a (for him) record low of 24%.

In May 2012 he will be back before the nation, seeking a second term as president.

Between now and then he has to turn things around. And the G-groups are very much part of the plan.

Domestic dividends

The potential political dividends are not to be underestimated. Two years ago, when France had the presidency of the EU through the financial crisis and the Russia-Georgia war, Mr Sarkozy's stock rose sharply.

The French expect their leaders to count in the world. And when they do, they tend to thank them for it.

More astutely, Mr Sarkozy can also play on a diplomatic vibe which resonates agreeably in many a French soul: the quest for a "new world order".

As head of the G8 and G20, Mr Sarkozy will argue for tougher regulations and wider international control in a number of areas.

He will push for reform of the international monetary system - a new Bretton Woods, as he calls it - to prevent the crazy fluctuations in exchange rates that do so much to hinder trade.

He will demand new rules for the markets in raw materials such as wheat or oil, to limit what he sees as the fake shortages created by speculation.

And he will seek to broaden the concept of world economic governance via the G20, by granting it a permanent secretariat and a wider remit.

One example might be the much-discussed tax on global financial transactions, which the G20 could monitor.

In general, he wants to convert the G20 from an ad-hoc crisis manager into a permanent agent for change.

All these ambitions are ones which even his fiercest enemies in France could sign up to.

For a president who is often accused in France of being besotted with wealth and the free market, it is a perfect chance to show that deep down, his values are solidly Gallic.

Heavyweight rival

And there is another potential bonus, too, from the global politicking of the next 12 months.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Dominique Strauss-Kahn may run against Mr Sarkozy for the presidency

All the polls show that Mr Sarkozy's most formidable rival in 2012 would be the former Socialist finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

If the election were held today, DSK - as he is known - would knock the president into a cocked Napoleonic hat.

DSK's current post is managing director of the International Monetary Fund. His mandate there ends in November 2012, but he is tempted by the prospect of the Elysee Palace.

Mr Sarkozy's mission over 2011 will be to involve the IMF as closely as possible with his G8-G20 initiatives, boosting Mr Strauss-Kahn's international responsibilities and generally creating the impression that the two men see eye-to-eye.

That way, either DSK will conclude that his IMF post is too important to give up a year in advance; or, if he does give the IMF up, his popularity on the French left will have been thoroughly undermined by his association with President Sarkozy.

It is probably too much to argue - as his enemies do - that Mr Sarkozy sees the G8-G20 presidencies as a desperate last resort for saving a second term.

But they do have a point: 2011 is a decisive year for the president. His international performance will be given due prominence - and then some.

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