Since taking office last may, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been on the move, appearing briefly in one spot after another and in a blaze of a flashbulbs. No wonder Saudi King Abdullah called him a "spirited thoroughbred" last September; by one count, France's chief exec has logged nearly 200,000km on the job.
All this movement can make it hard to pin down the core of Sarkozy's foreign policy. He has almost singlehandedly revived Europe's foundering campaign to write a new constitution, albeit in more modest form. Yet he
has also tested the European Union by questioning supposedly independent institutions like the European Central Bank, and seemed to go out of his way to annoy the largest EU member, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called his vague vision for a "Mediterranean Union"—an undefined economic, political and cultural bloc—a threat that could "disintegrate" the EU. And some of his recent gestures, particularly in the Muslim world, have surprised many. He has welcomed Muammar Kaddafi in Paris, pushed nuclear deals in the Arab world and recently announced the opening of a French military outpost in the United Arab Emirates—the first new French base abroad since the end of the colonial period.
Beneath the flash, however, Sarkozy seems to be aiming at something more profound: to reposition France as a full-blooded member of what he calls the "Western family" of nations. François Heisbourg, a French security specialist, says this idea is central to his world view. In practice it means a France that is ostentatiously chummy with the United States (witness Sarkozy's summer attendance at a Bush family barbecue), a friend of Israel and proud of its "Christian roots."
That's radical stuff for a country that has a growing Muslim population and a fiercely uncompromising tradition of laïcité, or secularism. Isabelle Lasserre, deputy chief of Le Figaro's foreign-policy service, says Sarkozy differs from his predecessors in that he doesn't define his foreign policy in opposition to the United States. His France is far less ambivalent about its place in the West than it was under Jacques Chirac, who saw it as a bridge between East and West (and a counterweight to Washington). Sarkozy has no doubt where France stands. If his occasional nods to Roman Catholicism, liberal economics or U.S. pop icons irk his countrymen, so be it.
When viewed through this lens, some of his loftier foreign-policy projects make more sense. Take his proposal for a Mediterranean Union, which is a way to offer (Muslim) Turkey an alternative to EU membership (something both he and Merkel oppose). It would also allow France to modernize its relationship with its former North African colonies. Sarkozy's beefed-up Western credentials also let him reach more deliberately across the divide. He has defended his "diplomacy of reconciliation"—a talk-to-anyone approach that's included Kaddafi and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez—by saying that "because we stand foursquare at the heart of our Western family, we [can] conduct these dialogues on the basis of our values." He's also engaged a more "Western" France in the global war for Muslim hearts and minds, something no American has the credentials for these days. That explains Sarkozy's engagement with Libya, and his startling mention of "God" 13 times in one speech during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. His message: "Who could contest that it's truly the same God to whom [Muslims, Christians and Jews] address their prayers?"
It also explains his effort to forge civilian nuclear-energy ties with Muslim countries while firmly backing U.S. pressure on Iran. In January, France's nuclear-energy giant Areva inked a deal for two reactors with the United Arab Emirates, and Sarkozy has also signed nuclear-cooperation accords with Libya and Algeria. Experts say that these moves cleverly undermine the Iranian argument that the West wants to deprive all Muslims of nuclear technology.
The drive to strengthen the West perhaps also inspired Sarkozy's 40-day post-election dash to get a "mini-treaty"—a stripped-down replacement for the EU's failed constitution—adopted. Sarkozy's document, which dropped controversial aspects of the original (like a flag and anthem) could be ratified by the end of this year. If Sarkozy has often seemed to defy Europe—breaking a promise to obey its budget cap, bad-mouthing the ECB's relatively hard money policies, talking down the euro—that's not a sign that he doesn't believe in the West. Just that he wants European policy to serve French economic interests, which could use easy money right now.
The difficulty: the West is not exactly crying out for French leadership. German officials, in particular, don't like his stand on the ECB, the euro, the budget or the Mediterranean Union. They oppose his nuclear-sales campaign as a proliferation threat. And they suspect his style as a throwback to de Gaulle, who always saw France as first among equals in Europe. That's hardly unwarranted suspicion, when Sarkozy talks as he has recently of promoting the "politics of civilization to establish France as the soul of the new renaissance that the world needs."
At times, Sarkozy seems to talk big for small, domestic reasons. His proposed carbon tax on imports from countries that don't observe the Kyoto Protocol provoked sharp protests from the United States and EU, but it never went anywhere, as Sarkozy probably anticipated. It did help him score points at home.
Sarkozy's mettle as a Western leader will be tested when, as president of the EU for six months starting on July 1, he'll get to shape the European agenda on defense, climate, energy and immigration policies. And if EU members ratify the mini-treaty this year, Sarkozy will help pick the first full-time European president. He's thought to favor Tony Blair, but if he didn't have a day job, he'd probably be angling for the post himself.