The Magazine

Sarkozy Starts Strong

And the opposition splits--literally.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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Hyperpresident--that's what France's leading conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, called Nicolas Sarkozy two weeks ago. Around the same time, the liberal satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné ran a cartoon featuring a pedalling machine under the president's desk. Caption: "He is even producing energy for the Elysée Palace." Left, right, and center, the sentiment was near universal: Sarkozy means business. He is a doer, and he does things so cleverly that he succeeds.

The new French president's most remarkable achievement so far has been to restore momentum to European affairs. Two years ago, two of the European Union's founding nations, France and the Netherlands, voted down a draft constitution for Europe that would have transformed the present confederation into a federal superstate. The defeat left the EU in total disarray. Some members, like Spain and Italy, had already ratified the constitution and felt betrayed. Some, like the United Kingdom, felt justified in their own skittishness about anything more elaborate than a European free trade zone. The rest started to wonder whether the Union had not reached the point of overstretch. The fact that two more countries--Romania and Bulgaria ("Northern and Southern Ruritania," as a French humorist had it)--joined in the meantime was no real comfort.

Neither was the euro's steady gain against the dollar, hardly helpful in terms of world trade. And other ominous developments loomed: Putin's Russia ratcheted up its bullying of the EU, both its energy delivery blackmail and its posturing over missile defense. A Franco-German crisis at Airbus ended in the sacking of the French CEO, Noël Forgeard, the nomination of a German, Gustav Humbert, to replace him, and the transfer to Hamburg of key operations hitherto located in Toulouse, the avionics capital of southern France.

Numerous plans for reviving the EU had been broached in various quarters. Sarkozy seized on a few of these and combined them in a characteristically smooth package, which he proceeded to sell.

The concept he put forward was a "smaller, leaner treaty." This meant stripping the proposed constitution of everything grandly "constitutional" and concentrating on practical reforms, like the creation of an elected EU presidency to replace the present rotation (the presidency changes hands every six months, and every nation, large or small, gets a turn--clearly unworkable with 27 member countries), or the elimination of the requirement of unanimity for decisions on certain vital matters like security and immigration.

Sarkozy knew he would win the support of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had supported similar proposals. In addition, the "small treaty" was to be discussed at the European Council (or conference of heads of state or government) to be held in Germany by late June, at the end of Germany's EU presidency.Merkel would look sympathetically on a French initiative that could provide an accomplishment to crown her presidency.

One by one, the other European partners were approached and seduced, including the leaders of the smaller nations that, under Sarkozy's plan, would receive less representation in Brussels than under the defeated draft constitution: Portugal, Spain, and even the redoubtable Poland, currently run by the hypernationalist Kaczynski twins. As for Britain, Sarkozy adroitly exploited the changing of the guard there: Tony Blair could not possibly leave office on a sour note, any more than Gordon Brown could assume it with a declaration of war on the continent. In short order, the "small treaty" was approved. The only puzzle was how such a modest, reasonable compromise could have eluded the EU for so long.