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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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).