France's 'Omni-President' Wins Praise for Take-Charge Approach

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 18, 2008

PARIS, Oct. 17 -- The satirical French newspaper Canard Enchaine has baptized President Nicolas Sarkozy the "omni-president," mocking him as a political whirling dervish who tries to take charge wherever he goes. As Sarkozy prepares to meet President Bush on Saturday evening at Camp David to discuss the world financial crisis, the joke has never seemed more appropriate.

Sarkozy, who took power in May 2007, has ridden the crisis to a stature he has rarely enjoyed during his time as president, among the French population as well as fellow European presidents. He arrives in Washington with political wind in his sails and the determination to convince Bush that now is the time for a broad revision of a world financial system whose free-market excesses Sarkozy has called "folly."

Sarkozy, 53, has perhaps been most noticed in the United States for a noisy divorce from his second wife and a swift remarriage to Carla Bruni, an Italian former model turned pop singer who is 13 years younger and noticeably taller than her husband. Sarkozy's more recent notoriety has flowed from a particularly energetic response to the financial crisis that hit European banks about 10 days after it erupted on Wall Street.

Rushing from summit to summit, from strategy session to private harangue, from telephone conversation to presidential banquet, Sarkozy has, over the last month, climbed back in opinion polls at home after a long slump that was due in part to his tumultuous private life but also to a sluggish economy. In addition, he has drawn praise from European leaders and commentators for embracing the crisis as an opportunity for leadership and for shepherding the 27 European Union nations into a coordinated response that few imagined possible a few weeks ago.

Reports in Paris said Sarkozy has told associates he views the crisis as a historic moment crying out for audacious and concerted action by world leaders. Europe, he reportedly said, has reacted with more vigor than the United States and, with France holding the European Union's rotating presidency, the incarnation of that resolute decision-making was Sarkozy himself.

Sarkozy will arrive for the talks with Bush backed by a unanimous E.U. decision Thursday endorsing his campaign for an international conference by the end of the year to revamp the world's financial regulations and, in Sarkozy's words, "re-found the capitalist system."

Bush and his aides have made it clear that that sounds too ambitious to their ears, particularly on the swift schedule laid out by Sarkozy. But the caution in Washington seemed unlikely to deter a man who has made bold leadership -- his detractors say rash and overbearing -- the hallmark of his career.

"In a world that is moving fast, being stuck in one place is the riskiest posture of all, for our country and for every Frenchman," Sarkozy wrote in his campaign autobiography, "Bearing Witness."

From the beginning of his political career as mayor of the cosseted Paris suburb of Neuilly, Sarkozy's attitude rubbed many French politicians and political commentators the wrong way. He was trained as a lawyer, making him one of the few senior French political figures who did not emerge through the National School of Administration, the elite academy that molds graduates of France's top universities to be ministry assistants, senior civil servants and, sometimes, political leaders.

Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian immigrant descended from minor nobility who married the daughter of a French urologist whose ancestors were among the Jews of Salonika, Greece. As such, Sarkozy was considered something of an outsider as he climbed the hierarchy in the Gaullist party under former president Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy's vocabulary was more robust than the velvet tones learned by his competitors from the National School of Administration and, perhaps because he is only 5-foot-5, he struck some as a bantam pecking his way through a world of finely feathered roosters.

"Politics was not a family tradition," he wrote in his 300-page campaign manifesto. "In fact, everything should have discouraged me from it. I had neither relations nor fortune. I was not a civil servant and I had a name that, with its foreign sound, would have convinced a lot of people to melt into anonymity rather than expose themselves to the light."

Sarkozy's competition with former prime minister Dominique de Villepin was a dramatic illustration of his drive. Both men were weighing a run for the presidency at the end of Chirac's second and final term. De Villepin, a tall, silver-haired graduate of the National School of Administration who had been a diplomat and foreign minister, looked the part. But Sarkozy, distinguishing himself as a law-and-order interior minister during immigrant rioting, scratched his way into the Gaullist party leadership and eventually imposed himself as the candidate.

Nicolas Verón of Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic and political research center, noted that throughout his career, Sarkozy has come back to try again after defeats. This trait was on display during the recent financial crisis, Verón noted.

Sarkozy's first attempt to get the leaders of Europe's main economic powers to endorse coordinated responses on Oct. 4 ended in failure. Undeterred, he multiplied telephone contacts and sent out a flurry of suggestions to European capitals .

The result was a summit Oct. 12 during which the leaders of the 15 countries that use the euro agreed on a common European framework for national measures to keep banks afloat and guarantee bank deposits.

"And he was diplomatic about it, too," Verón added.

To make the accord possible, for instance, Sarkozy went out of his way to court German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he had clashed in previous times of stress. She had proclaimed that case-by-case national decisions were the only way out of the crisis. But by the Oct. 12 summit, she was signing onto Sarkozy's proposals for a Europe-wide formula.

Similarly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had attended the Oct. 4 gathering only on the condition that there be no talk of common European bailout funds. Once there, he joined Merkel in advocating national-level action. But Sarkozy responded by letting it be known through leaks from the Elysee Palace that he admired Brown's bailout plan for Britain and wanted to suggest something similar on a European scale. In a further bow to Brown, he invited the British leader to attend part of the Oct. 12 summit even though Britain does not use the euro.

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