Sarkozy: A User's Manual

By now Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to France, having accomplished the primary purpose of his visit to Washington: to leave behind a legion of admirers. He made no secret of his intention, announcing upon his arrival that he was there "to win back the heart of America". To that end, he left nothing to chance. The entire visit was a carefully choreographed public relations campaign, tailor-made for the American audience. With a kiss on the hand for Laura followed by a slap on the shoulder for George, Sarkozy set the tone, alternating between seduction and business, and offering a little bit of something for everyone.

For those who might have heard he was a divisive figure, Sarkozy used the composition of his delegation – three women (one of Arab descent, another of African origin) and a Socialist – to present the image of a "new France", one that America could easily identify with. In his speech before Congress, too, Sarkozy gave everyone a reason to feel satisfied. For those on the right, who want a French ally that will fall in line with American interests, Sarkozy was tough on Iran, committed to Afghanistan, and resolute in the fight against terrorism. For those on the left, who want a French ally that will keep us honest, Sarkozy was (silently) unapologetic on Iraq, forceful on global warming, and convincing in his arguments for a strong Europe.

As a result, Sarkozy accomplished what every media consultant dreams of: To have each listener hear not what he actually said, but what they wanted to hear. But for anyone familiar with Sarkozy's method, his speech before Congress was more than just a successful public relations ploy. It was the outline of a bargaining position for what he conceives of as an unfolding negotiation with his newly reconciled friend and ally.

As he always does at the start of a negotiation, Sarkozy clearly defined what he can, and what he can not, deliver. In this case, that amounts to a more robust position in support of America's national security interests, so long as that does not imply any revisiting of the Iraq dossier. In particular, his mention of Lebanon, as much as Iran, was a prominently dangled carrot, in light of France's special relationship to that strategically vital country.

He went on to articulate what he expects from us. That can be broadly summed up as an America more sensitive to the political needs of its allies. Specifically, he made clear that addressing global warming and revitalizing Europe are real concerns, and that America thwarts them at the risk of her own credibility. By not shying away from these points of contention, Sarkozy was also signalling his refusal to wind up like Tony Blair, who gave Bush cover on the Iraq War but got nothing in return, and whose lasting image suffered as a result.

Sarkozy, by comparison, is a skilled negotiator who gives away nothing without getting something in exchange. To the contrary, he's a master of the false concession. Take, for instance, the gestures he has so far made to win over France’s American critics. For the time being, they have come at the cost of little more than raised eyebrows. Bernard Kouchner's visit to Baghdad remains an isolated event; the muscular rhetoric on Iran has yet to be put to the test. But as Sarkozy must have known, they have been enough to whet the appetite of a Bush administration that finds itself increasingly isolated and hard pressed for someone in Europe to echo its hard line on Iran.

Sarkozy's wooing of America, meanwhile, is just one item on an ambitious list of foreign policy goals, many of which he has already accomplished. He successfully pushed through his vision of a European "mini-treaty" to break the institutional crisis that has paralysed the EU since the failed constitutional referendum of 2005. He has also advanced France's industrial interests in Europe and North Africa, laying the groundwork for his proposed Mediterranean Union. Perhaps most significantly, he has reinvigorated the image of French diplomacy through his active interventions on behalf of Ingrid Betancourt, the Bulgarian nurses, and the French journalists and Swiss stewardesses recently released from Chad.

But rehabilitating relations with America still remains a priority, and to understand why, it helps to remember the old joke that made the rounds in the aftermath of French opposition to the Iraq War: You can always count on the French to be there when they need us. Because while Sarkozy might genuinely like us, he also very much needs us.

Sarkozy understands power like Picasso understood paint. The story of his rise from political wunderkind (he was elected mayor of the Parisian equivalent of Beverly Hills while still just 28 years old) to the Elysee Palace is one of seeking powerful patrons and then leveraging their influence for his gain. So he knows as well as anyone that in order for France – whose scope for unilateral action is limited – to yield real influence, he must operate as a middle-man, using his leverage among clusters of interested parties to deliver concessions and seal deals.

That explains his zeal for a revitalized Europe, as it provides him with more weight with which to operate vis a vis America, Russia and further afield. Close relations with America, meanwhile, provide him with increased leverage vis a vis Germany and England in intra-European affairs, as well as in his dealings with other great powers. Ultimately, all the leveraging and deal-making serves one purpose and one purpose only: to advance the interests of France. But as always with an overly leveraged position, Sarkozy runs the risk of increasing the breadth of France's influence at the expense of its depth.

Closer to home, after an initial honeymoon period following his election, Sarkozy is beginning to feel the first stirrings of opposition to his program of domestic reforms. Both the students and the unions, the twin engines of the French left ever since the uprisings of May 68, have begun to mobilize against his proposed reforms to the higher education and pension systems. Sarkozy for his part has promised not to back down on his promise to push the reforms through. And while French domestic politics follows its own peculiar logic, his ability to enhance France’s influence and stature abroad will only help him rally support for the coming fight.

So it’s not surprising that Sarkozy struck all the right notes while in Washington, even if there are more potential differences to be resolved than the tone of the visit suggested. Because the final thing to keep in mind about Sarkozy is that, unlike Bush, he rarely sets pre-conditions to negotiations. He's perfectly willing to postpone confrontation, even confrontation that might seem inevitable, if he thinks he can squeeze out concessions and continue to advance common points of interest through dialogue. In Sarkozy's method, there's always time to set fire to the powder keg later, should negotiation fail to achieve his objectives.

Which is why while some in Washington might prematurely celebrate his foreign policy as a major realignment with American interests, Sarkozy himself will be busy watching how much Bush -- and whoever succeeds him in the Oval Office -- realigns American foreign policy with his own.

Originally published in Headline Junky