Adrian Hamilton: Our unpredictable and troublesome guest

Thursday 27 March 2008 01:00

The joy of Nicolas Sarkozy's state visit is that here we have the most passionately pro-British French President in a century and the British have no idea what to do with him. Neither, of course, do the French, who have looked on appalled as their president has rampaged about the world, like a Tigger let lose among the adults.

But then that, in a sense, ought to endear him to our Prime Minister. Much has been made of the differences between the two, in character and approach; the mercurial versus the morose. But what is interesting is their similarities. Both are politicians who have spent the whole of their adult life, and probably much of their childhood, wanting and working for one thing: the top political job. Both prepared the way carefully and completely, trying to start off with ministries-of-all-the-talents that would confirm their image of themselves as the embodiment of their nations. And both, of course, have come a cropper with their domestic public, who wanted good judgement, not self-obsession.

In that sense, the meeting could be an occasion for two drunks to prop each other up. They are leaders with fading home support in need of some foreign successes to imbue them with the role of statesmen. M. Sarkozy has rather spoiled his bid by a series of gaffes in his visits abroad. Gordon Brown has never really got off the ground, partly because he has always looked as if he finds foreigners and foreign travel a bore, except of course his beloved America.

But then that at least ought to unite the two. For nobody should be in any doubt about M. Sarkozy's love affair with all things Anglo-Saxon. What makes him unique among French presidents is not his lifestyle, his love affair, his boisterousness or his faux pas – although they are certainly somewhat disturbing to the French idea of how their leader should behave. It is that, born of Hungarian and Greek immigrants, he looks to the West for France's future, not to the South or East.

M. Sarkozy's idolisation of America, his determination to bend France and Europe to the Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism, and his enthusiasm for reforming international institutions should make him a fellow spirit with Gordon Brown. Indeed, both got on perfectly well when they were finance ministers of their respective countries. Yet, for all the articles and speeches about great new opportunities for Anglo-French co-operation, few in their right mind believe it will happen. This is partly down to Mr Brown's approach, or rather lack of it, to Europe. It is not so much that he is anti-European. He isn't. But he does not see it as a living, developing organism. It is a market, an area, a fact. He looks to it as an audience and a support for his general views on global trade, institutional change and actions on specific threats such as terrorism. But he has no particular views on where the EU should be in a decade's time.

The EU, to him, is a source of domestic political trouble and potential regulatory interference, not an avenue to the world of tomorrow. But then M. Sarkozy is not that much different. He is full of initiatives, it is true, but few are thought out and even fewer followed through. He wants France's return to the centre of Nato, but also wants an EU defence force run by France and Britain. He came up with a policy for a Mediterranean-wide grouping without considering the effect on the non-Mediterranean countries of the EU, and in particular Germany. He believes in intervention to lower the rise of the euro currency but never squares this with a policy of laissez faire economics.

It makes him both unpredictable and potentially troublesome. His last public statement before leaving France for London this week was to say that he was seriously considering boycotting the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, forcing No 10 to issue clear guidance that Mr Brown, in contrast, was against such a boycott.

Mr Blair would have loved the opportunity M. Sarkozy's style presents, but then Mr Blair is like the French leader in his taste for gesture at the expense of policy preparation, which is why M. Sarkozy proposed Mr Blair to become the EU's new president and Mr Blair is so interested in it: the appearance of importance without the responsibility.

In that sense M. Sarkozy is not a man of the new world but a nationalist of the old. He would have been in his element with George Bush and Tony Blair in 2003, throwing France behind the Iraq invasion and ramping up the rhetoric of the war on terror. The question is whether he is right for now, when the world is in financial crisis, the US is slipping into recession, Asia is asserting new-found power, Europe lacks any real definition and Britain is led by a man too cowardly to meet the Dalai Llama in No 10, let alone offend the Chinese by boycotting their Olympic jamboree.

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