Sarah Sands: Will old goat be on the menu at Berlusconi's summit?

A petition by Italian women academics that calls on wives of G8 leaders to boycott the forthcoming summit in Italy as a protest against the behaviour of President Berlusconi is gaining signatures. The main topic on the agenda of the L'Aquila summit in July is the stabilisation of Afghanistan, but the chief subject of conversation is likely to be the heroically/disgracefully goatish behaviour of Silvio Berlusconi.

Just as President Obama ushered in a dawn of subtle, complex, individualistic world citizens, so President Berlusconi has his own counter-cultural musical hall line-up of busty women in bikinis, hypocritical bishops and goose-stepping Germans.

He is not the only European leader who behaves differently to the model we expect in this country. An Australian politician I met the other day had been puzzled by a reception he attended at the Elysée Palace. It had been an occasion for global politicians of the centre-right to discuss political principles. President Sarkozy greeted his guests and then disappeared from the room. The politicians eagerly awaited his return so that discussions could begin. After an hour or so they became restless. My Australian acquaintance helped himself to a drink and looked at the view from the window onto the courtyard. To his astonishment, he recognised Sarkozy, in a tracksuit, jogging round the edge. The guests concluded that the explanation for such bizarre behaviour must be that Sarkozy was French.

President Sarkozy is married to a chic woman who records pretentious songs. He is clever, charming, vain, and tried to marginalise the British over D-Day. Because he is French. Similarly, if any politician is going to get away with a cabinet of chorus girls, he will probably be Italian. Remember, Emperor Nero was quite popular with his people. In a country famous for its pornographic television, for its indifference towards the political process and for a historically lax view of rape, Berlusconi is not a freak.

Perhaps each nation gets the scandal it deserves. As a nation of shopkeepers, our greatest political earthquake centres on MPs' supermarket receipts and income tax arrangements. It makes our hearts beat faster.

Yet national stereotypes do not wholly explain why some politicians brush off scandal and others are sunk by it. Even if you share the view of those envious male bloggers who explain that "Berlusconi represents hope for all men that they will still be f*****g in their seventies", you might also acknowledge that he lacks a little dignity.

Some claim that Berlusconi is forgiven his Hugh Hefner-style indulgences because he is so very disciplined about immigration. But policies are not the key to everything. President Obama is often criticised for his policies, but remains worshipped for his charismatic cool.

The fact is that popularity is so fickle that it is indefinable. Gordon Brown cannot understand the changes in the public mood. He was loved for being gloomy and sleepless in a crisis and now he is despised for it. No wonder his election strategy is to hang on and hope for a change of wind. Look how it blew Peter Mandelson into something close to public affection.

President Berlusconi has a 60 per cent popularity rating not because the Viagra generation have voted with their feet, or because Italy is essentially a land of unclothed women and priapic men. His appeal is intangible. That is what makes it so galling for British politicians. There are no lessons to be learned.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'