Liars, damn liars and Netanyahu: Sarkozy's unfortunate gaffe

The French President's diplomacy is again being questioned following his latest off-the-cuff remark

Paris

Nicolas Sarkozy's readiness to badmouth other world leaders plunged him into trouble again yesterday, as it was revealed that the French President called the Israeli Prime Minister "a liar" during the G20 summit in Cannes last week.

The French and English interpretation of the conversation between Mr Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama was accidentally broadcast to journalists. According to a French media website, Mr Sarkozy said of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "I can't bear to see him any more. He's a liar."

Mr Obama's response – not realising that journalists were listening in – was scarcely more diplomatic. "You may be fed up with him but I have to deal with him every day," he said.

The brief exchange, at the end of a bilateral meeting between the French and US presidents, was accidentally transmitted on interpretation headsets distributed to journalists waiting for a press conference. The conversation was reported yesterday by the French media website Arrêt sur Images ("Freeze-frame"). Several French, one American and one Israeli journalist who were present in Cannes confirmed that the exchange was accurate. They said they had agreed not to write about Mr Sarkozy's comments at the time because it would have embarrassed the press service of the Elysée Palace.

Neither the French nor the Israeli governments were prepared to comment yesterday. In France, the incident will be seen as further evidence that diplomacy is not Mr Sarkozy's strongest suit. The respected centre-left newspaper Le Monde reported recently that European leaders often compare notes on the insulting things that Mr Sarkozy says about them behind their backs.

The paper's Elysée Palace correspondent, Arnaud Leparmentier, quoted an unnamed, senior EU politician as saying: "When European leaders phone one another and we have just spoken to Nicolas Sarkozy, we start by saying: 'Are you going to tell me the nasty things he said about me? Or shall I go first?'"

At an EU summit in Brussels last month, Mr Sarkozy tried to shout down David Cameron after he claimed Britain's right to be consulted on some aspects of the eurozone bailout negotiations. Mr Sarkozy told him, among other things, that he had "lost a good opportunity to shut up". Mr Sarkozy is also said to refer privately to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as "la boche" – "the female kraut". She reportedly refers to him as "Mr Bean".

Elysée staffers and journalists have also frequently been victims of Mr Sarkozy's temper and sharp tongue. In November 2010, in an off-the-record exchange with French journalists at a Nato summit in Lisbon, the President was furious when asked a question about reports of his involvement in illegal political financing in the 1990s.

Mr Sarkozy launched into a complex analogy about press ethics and the use of unnamed sources. "You say ridiculous things. You check nothing," he said. "You, I have nothing against you, but it seems that you are a paedophile. I am personally convinced of that fact. I have spoken to the security services [about it] but I won't tell you which ones."

* A year out from the 2012 presidential election, a nervous White House is discreetly retooling with Bill Daley, the Chief of Staff to the President, relinquishing some of his duties amid rumbles that he has not lived up to the expectations that surrounded his appointment 10 months ago.

The quiet shake-up, which will see Mr Daley hand over responsibility for co-ordinating some internal White House operations to senior political counsellor Peter Rouse, will be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that President Barack Obama wants to be better served by his inner circle.

Mr Rouse is a rumpled, media-averse figure with a reputation for navigating the shoals of Capitol Hill like no other.

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