The Magazine

Saakashvili Takes Paris

A president and an intello walk into a Left-Bank bar...

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
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Paris

As an exercise in diplomatic deployment, Mikhail Saakashvili had his French trip planned to near perfection. The French like you more if you've published a book. Check. Even better if the book is originally in French. Check two. And most of all if you've written the book with a card-carrying member of a dynasty of Nouveaux Philosophes. Check three.

Thus it was that last Wednesday night, I was yakking away, glass of red in hand in approved Left Bank form, in a crowded Georgian restaurant at the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés, waiting for the president of Georgia and his co-author Raphaël Glucksmann, who in equally approved form were both late. Piles of Je vous parle de liberté (Hachette Littératures, 2008) awaited inscribing under the watchful eye of two Hachette publicists. Nobody was checking invitations. There was no visible security among the modish crowd jostling for spicy canapés inside the bar and only a small police van parked at the corner of rue du Sabot and rue de Rennes down the block. You could not have better telegraphed that Saakashvili--who, as he reminded everyone regularly during his 48-hour-trip, spent a year studying in Strasbourg and there met his future wife--felt at home in France, in the Sixth Arrondissement, and with this crowd.

Saakashvili eventually arrived and gave a short, graceful speech in very good French--more family reunion than formal declaration--particularly saluting his co-author's father, André Glucksmann, the bowl-cut coiffed author of The Master Thinkers and famous as the reuniter of Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron (over the fate of Vietnamese boat-people in 1979). Glucksmann père floated above the proceedings looking like a gaunt but rather healthy mummy. He had read him while a student, Saakashvili explained, marvelling that someone understood the Soviet evil so well. He had not even known if Glucksmann were still alive, much less could he have imagined that he would one day meet the philosopher's son in a muddy park in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, that the two would become friends, and would write a book together. Everyone in the overcrowded room was smiling. After all, one could hardly do better in terms of well-connected tourisme engagé. (The French don't play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon but Six Degrés de Jean-Paul Sartre.)

It was a perfect moment, one of the best of Saakashvili's whole tour. He was in France to make the case that Russia had violated the terms of the imperfect cease-fire agreements negotiated by Sarkozy in the name of the European Union on August 12 and September 8, and urge firmness. Saakashvili had even cadged an Elysée invite from Sarko just a day before the EU-Russia summit began in Nice with the French in the seat of the rotating EU presidency.

Throughout his whirlwind tour, Saakashvili was careful to give credit to the Sarkozy-led EU intervention, but it was felt at the time that the Europeans had conceded too much, especially in treating as a fait accompli a Russian military presence in the two seceding Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, Europe is split between the established "engagement with Russia is necessary" line, peddled by Commission president José Manuel Barroso among others, and a resistance front let by the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, and a somewhat wobbly Gordon Brown, who argue that there should be no resumption of talks on EU-Russia commercial partnership before Russia pulls back the 8,000 soldiers she has on the ground --some as close to Tbilisi as 30 miles. Overall, the engagement line is winning.

Nowhere could this be more strongly felt than on France Inter, the state radio, bright and early Thursday morning as Saakashvili sat in the studio as the guest of the 8 A.M. news program. We French still get our hard news and spin from radio throughout the day, only switching to television at night. France Inter is a kind of mass-market NPR, with a relentlessly po-faced liberal line that has only ever pleased, or sought to please, the Quai d'Orsay--as France's foreign ministry is known (the mandarins, not the minister himself, whose ideas are largely seen as irrelevant by his administration).

They were awaiting the Georgian aventuriste loaded for bear. Introducing the guest, Bernard Guetta, the morning foreign affairs moderator, reminded us that Saakashvili's calling Europe's possible abandonment of Georgia a "new Munich" had "the support of the American right." Having painted the Neocon cross squarely on Saakashvili's chest, Guetta continued. Georgia had "provoked" Russia, which felt threatened by the suggestion of an "unnecessary and unfeasible extension of NATO" to Georgia and Ukraine, but "thankfully" the United States "had not moved" to defend its ally. Common sense and world stability dictated that Europe and the United States should abstain from "pushing Russia too far" and should instead consider her "offer of cooperation." Nicolas Demorand, France Inter's news editor, then brought out "independent evidence" that Georgia had attacked first. Even the listeners during the phone-in segment were hostile.

Saakashvili, though, gave as good as he got. The OSCE monitor who gave the supposed "independent evidence" has since been fired, he countered. "There wasn't a single Georgian soldier on Russian soil at any time. It was our towns which were bombed, our territory which was invaded, our population which was pushed out or killed by the thousands, even after the EU agreement was signed." A town called Akhalgory was even renamed Leningory: "This in the 21st century." His hosts were dismissive and urged him to reconsider. Joining NATO was a pipedream. "America's support for Georgia weakens and will weaken even more under President Obama." In vain did Saakashvili quote the president-elect's words from the debates, or note Senator Biden's trip to Georgia during the summer war. "Don't you feel how the wind is changing in Washington?" he was admonished.

The rest of the day, save for his 40-minute meeting with Sarkozy, Saakashvili spent giving print interviews, taping more television segments, and, finally, joining Raphaël Glucksmann on Le Grand Journal, a one-hour early evening news program on Canal+, France's premier pay-TV channel.

This could have gone for or against Saakashvili. Glucksmann's presence and the duo's practiced, if slightly smug, allusions to their youth, clinched it. The Le Monde-quoting Saakashvili (with one more reference to meeting his wife in Strasbourg) was anointed as cool by both the studio audience and the show's regulars. These had decided to use the occasion to bash Sarkozy, always a well-received exercise. ("He campaigned saying that Putin had Chechen blood on his hands, and now they're best buddies! All he answered last summer when Putin said he wanted to have you 'strung up by the balls' was 'You can't do that, do you want to end up like George Bush?' ")

Saakashvili smiled at the show's famous political puppets, at the generously décolletaged weather girl, and even during the short video segment showing him coming out of the Elysée meeting earlier in the afternoon and looking a little forlorn on the palace steps when Sarkozy turns away after shaking his hand. The Georgian president demonstrated the required sense of distance accepted as proper manners in the postmodern political discourse practiced by countries where the memories of foreign invasion has faded away.

Throughout his French tour, Saakashvili gave his rather impressively sophisticated all and could only hope that it had advanced the cause of his beleaguered country on the European stage.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political journalist in Paris and a frequent contributor to the BBC.