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France's Sarkozy Will Leave Mixed Legacy as EU President

On New Year's Day France hands over the rotating European Union presidency to the Czech Republic, ending one of the most eventful six-month tenures ever as head of the 27-member bloc.  

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is known as a man of action - and he had plenty of issues to act on during France's six months at the helm of the European Union. France's agenda initially included launching a new European-Mediterranean partnership including North African and Middle Eastern nations, and to advance the Lisbon Treaty to reform the 27-member EU.

But unforeseen events worked to shape the French presidency into one of the most dynamic in EU history. First came the brief war between Russia and Georgia in August. President Sarkozy went to both capitals to secure a cease-fire agreement.

Then came the financial and economic crises.  Mr. Sarkozy called for a European summit for figure out a common strategy to tackle the meltdown - and pushed for a larger summit of the world's top economic powers in Washington.

In a farewell address to the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg earlier this month, Mr. Sarkozy dwelt on his tenure as EU president.

The French leader said he had learned tolerance and a certain overture in trying to address the problems of 27 nations. He had tried to change Europe, he said, but Europe had changed him. And he said the European Union was more necessary now than ever.

A number of diplomats and pundits have praised Mr. Sarkozy's energy, including European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Philip Whyte, a senior analyst at the Center for European Reform in London, also gives the French president good marks.

"I think Sarkozy on the whole has done quite a good job," he says. "Sarkozy is not someone who has a particularly coherent ideological view of the world. He's really a man of action rather than a man of ideas. And because he's a man of action, he's actually brought to the EU a lot of the energies that were needed at this current point in time."

Some analysts actually wonder whether Sarkozy has left a lasting mark on the role of an EU president because he has been so active these past six months. Earlier in December, he also managed to secure EU agreement on a climate change plan considered the most far-reaching to date. Still, the final deal was watered down.

"Maybe he's tried to fill a real political role, to show he's a political leader. It's not sure he succeeded in that field because on many issues he didn't get a major outcome," says French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges. "One example, the climate/energy package. It's clear that agreement is not an historical agreement, it's just adding the 27 national visions."

Mr. Sarkozy's authoritative style has also managed to ruffle feathers - notably that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The Franco-German relationship has always been the key relationship within the EU," says analyst Philip Whyte. "But I think Sarkozy's approach to diplomacy has always riled the Germans. And I think the personal relationship between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy is at an all-time low."

Mr. Sarkozy has scored political points at home. A poll earlier this month found 56 percent of French approved of his EU presidency. His popularity has also risen compared to earlier this year, when many French disapproved of his lifestyle and his tough reform policies.

But analyst Defarges points out that many French are more interested in issues facing them at home - notably the moribund economy and unemployment - than the European Union.

As for Mr. Sarkozy - he may be ending his European presidency, but he appears intent on keeping France a major world player.

 

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