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Sarkozy's Russia-Georgia Diplomacy Earns Mixed Reviews at Home

The cease-fire between Georgia and Russia is being seen by some as a triumph for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current head of the European Union. Only one month into France's EU presidency, Mr. Sarkozy has shown an appetite for action, but his work has earned him mixed reviews back home. Lisa Bryant has more for VOA in Paris.

After a day of meetings between Russian and Georgian leaders, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was able to announce success.

At a joint news conference with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili Tuesday, Mr. Sarkozy called a newly agreed ceasefire between Georgia and Russia the beginning of a process for peace. He called on both sides to respect the letter and spirit of the truce.

Georgia has already accused Russia of violating the ceasefire, but the 27-member EU endorsed it during a foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Wednesday and agreed on the idea of sending monitors to supervise it.

Several analysts interviewed Wednesday credit the EU and Mr. Sarkozy in particular for brokering a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Georgia and Russia after several days of fighting.

But, Antonio Misseroli, director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels, predicts France's EU presidency, which lasts until the end of the year, will be an uneven one.

"Having France at the head of the EU is always a blessing and a curse," he said. "It is a blessing because France is a powerful member of the European Union so it has a certain authority -- both internally and externally." "That is what mattered in this particular case. France is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, so is seen as a more credible member in this game. But at the same time France is also a very assertive member and has its own state interests to defend and put forward."

Mr. Sarkozy clashed with European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson last month over Europe's position in World Trade Organization negotiations. His proposal for a European-Mediterranean partnership was watered down because of German objections. Nonetheless, he was credited with bringing Arab and Israeli leaders together during an EU Mediterranean summit in July in which Lebanon and Syria announced full diplomatic ties.

Robin Shepherd, European analyst at Chatham House, a London policy institute, describes Mr. Sarkozy's tenure as EU president so far as a mixed bag.

"One the one hand, as far as trade negotiations, he did make it unnecessarily difficult for the EU's trade negotiator during the Doha round of talks," he said. "But on the other hand, both with the Mediterranean Union idea and right now brokering this ceasefire, it's been a rather impressive peace of work."

Mr. Sarkozy has earned similarly mixed reviews in France, where his popularity has plummetted since he took office last year. While he was credited with securing respect from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a visit to the Middle East this year, he has been criticized for inviting controversial leaders like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Syria's Bashar Assad to France. Mr. Sarkozy responds by arguing that diplomacy means speaking to a broad array of people.

The French president was similarly criticized for putting French interests above human rights ones when he decided to attend the opening Olympic ceremony in Beijing and decided not to meet with the Dalai Lama, who is currently visiting France. Mr. Sarkozy's office says he will meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader later this year.

Both at home and abroad, Mr. Sarkozy is known as a man of action, particularly compared to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Misseroli of the European Policy Center says that may not be so bad.

"Certainly it is a much more dynamic foreign policy than under Mr. Chirac," he said. "And of course dynamism has a price. Dynamism shakes the existing picture, antagonises some players and probably also brings others on board. That is what is happening and will continue to happen."

Mr. Sarkozy's dynamism when it comes to the current Russia-Georgia crisis may score him some points back home -- even though, as analyst Steven Ekovich points out, unlike Mr. Sarkozy, very few French are working in August.

"The French are on vacation, but this has brought the president on the front page so as they're hiking in the Alps or walking along the beach or just strolling through the countryside, when they stop by the local bookstore or newspaper shop, they're going to see their president engaged in an important fashion -- trying to solve a crisis in Europe. So it can only help," he said.

A professor at the American University of Paris, Ekovich also notes the ceasefire agreement was not entirely due to Mr. Sarkozy's actions.

"What's very important here is that Nicolas Sarkozy represented not only European opinion but western opinion," said Ekovich. "We shouldn't forget that Russia has become very entangled in international institutions that were largely developed by the West."

As much as anything else, Ekovich says, the threat of cutting Russia out of these institutions played a key role in Moscow's decision to sign onto the truce with Georgia.