The world's finance ministers and central bankers are paid to be careful souls. Even in the inner sanctum of the International Monetary Fund's annual meetings, many of them read their statements to each other from carefully prepared notes to say next to nothing in 10 different ways.

But that practice is anathema to Nicolas Sarkozy, France's finance minister and declared conservative candidate to succeed Jacques Chirac as president in 2007. Sarkozy recently charged into a complex discussion of monetary affairs with a spontaneous directness and irrepressible energy that impressed some and shocked others in his laced-up audience.

Visiting Washington and New York this month, Sarkozy demonstrated in private and public gatherings that he runs a huge surplus in the boldness account. Whether or not it will take him to the Elysee Palace is a tale for another day.

His ascent this year to the dominant position atop France's public opinion polls is an important indication of a change that is occurring in Europe's mainstream political parties. Sarkozy's message is that politicians can no longer afford to handle the Old Continent's relations with its Muslim neighbors and its own Muslim minorities with platitudes and evasiveness.

The neglected subject of the nature of Islam in Europe is also becoming an important topic, in a more muted way, for Germany's Angela Merkel as she prepares to lead the Christian Democrats into regional elections next year. Voter drift to fringe parties that have exploited Europe's submerged religious and racial tensions helps explain this sharpening focus by mainstream leaders.

So does the decision last week by the European Union's executive arm to recommend that the 25-member organization open negotiations on European Union membership for Turkey. The recommendation must be confirmed at an E.U. summit in December before bargaining, which could take 10 to 15 years, can begin.

The conditional offer to negotiate with a large Muslim nation on E.U. membership is already stirring political debate in Europe. It is a debate that can be extraordinarily dangerous or extraordinarily useful -- for Europeans and Americans alike -- depending on how it is managed and whether it is integrated into a more productive transatlantic approach to the global campaign against Islamic terrorist networks.

Europeans have grown resentful of U.S. pressure to wring from them a quick commitment to admit Turkey. They point out that American politicians and policymakers will not suffer the economic and cultural dislocation this step will bring. Extended negotiations will help Turkey adjust to the political and economic reforms needed before it can truly join Europe.

A moratorium on unhelpful American yammering on Turkish admission -- which now turns into a sensitive domestic political issue in European countries -- is a good place to start the search for a new transatlantic approach. This approach must progressively center more on promoting tolerance and personal freedom within Islam than on combat missions.

Europeans in turn should take on more of the burden in broadening the war on global terrorism, with a campaign to get Muslim communities to confront the fanatical fringe groups and ideologies that have taken root in their midst, be it in North Africa or in Germany.

That is where the directness and boldness of a figure such as Sarkozy may be useful in repairing the damaged transatlantic consensus on global security. As interior minister before moving to finance (he moves again in November to head France's ruling conservative party) Sarkozy practiced both deterrence and dialogue with France's 5 million to 6 million Muslims.

He flooded the ghettos with police while engaging radical Muslims in direct talks about forming a national council to work with the government. He promised state financing for training Muslim clerics and building mosques, a near heresy in a republic founded on the separation of religion and government.

"Why should we let Saudi Arabia build mosques here and Algeria export radical imams to France? I want an Islam of France, not an Islam that happens to be in France," he told his associates as he embarked on this double-edged approach, which propelled him to the top of opinion polls.

This bold move is far from a sure thing. Islamic radicals are not interested in nations or governments and all their trappings, except as targets.

But straight talk on an issue that has been virtually taboo in Europe has these merits: It helps take control of the issue away from bigots and extremists. It attenuates the appeal of radicals for French Muslims. And it brings new chances for Americans and Europeans to close a strategically damaging gap.

jimhoagland@washpost.com