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The Sarkozy Moment: The United States and France

Has the G-8 summit given the Bush Administration a unique opportunity to repair its relations with France?

June 8, 2007

Has the G-8 summit given the Bush Administration a unique opportunity to repair its relations with France?

The Bush Administration has been handed a unique opportunity to repair its relations with Europe at the G-8 summit. France has just elected Nicolas Sarkozy, who was frank in saying France should rebuild the alliance with the United States.

It is in a sense a double or triple opening. Angela Merkel, elected last year by Germany, also seeks to rebuild transatlantic relations and, at the moment, holds both the EU presidency and that of the G-8.

And Tony Blair is still there, albeit for one last time. In the astrology business, they say such a conjuncture of the stars comes only once in a lifetime. If the Bush team acts wisely, it will use the opening to achieve a renewal of the cooperative spirit in transatlantic relations.

However, there is a more recent habit of ignoring such openings, or using them merely to win short-term political advantages. The U.S. government may well do this again — and the opening would be wasted.

Sarkozy is not the first recent French president to be elected with a pro-U.S. stance. When Jacques Chirac was first elected president in 1995, he too was pro-American. He even sought to engineer a re-entry of France into the NATO military command.

Two things killed that: the failure to work out a reasonable compromise on terms for rejoining the NATO military, and Chirac’s political implosion at home. Thus, the political opening for the United States was slammed shut.

Sarkozy’s opening is also fragile. He has been divisive in France to an extent that outshines even the early Chirac. He has been met with violence, not just strikes.

He too is a market reformer — only more so. And Sarkozy is pro-United States, again like Chirac at the outset, and again more so. However, Sarkozy lacks the longstanding Gaullist credentials that initially gave Chirac the political space for it.

Sarkozy faces elections for the French legislature on June 10, a mere two days after the G-8 summit ends, with a final round to be held on June 17. His party is poised to do well, but the way Sarkozy comes out of the summit will set the mood and influence the vote, probably at the margins — but a failure on an election eve can lead to unpredictable turns in the zeitgeist.

Sarkozy has taken several steps to protect his political capital from being undermined by the left. As his first policy initiative, he has focused on fighting global warming — a concern genuinely shared on the right as on the left of the political spectrum in Europe, as well as in most other industrial democracies outside the United States.

France’s opposition Socialists, of course, are urging voters to “see through” Sarkozy’s actions as “empty PR gestures” aimed at “manipulating people” and winning the legislative elections.

The G-8 summit outcome will be the main basis before the elections for determining whether Sarkozy’s environmentalism will seem to have genuine substance — or whether his critics will seem right.

The G-8 results on global warming are important for all three of President Bush’s main partners in Europe — Sarkozy, Merkel and Tony Blair. For the latter, it has lasting importance: It is his last shot at vindicating his close alliance with the United States during the Bush years.

This also means it is the last chance for the current U.S. government to salvage the “special relationship” with Britain from massive discrediting.

If the G-8 fails on global warming, the opportunity would be lost for a dramatic, enduring shift of Europe toward a more pro-U.S. policy.

When he won the election, Sarkozy said two things to the United States: that “France will always be at their side when they need it” — and that “a nation great as the United States has the duty not to obstruct the fight against global warming.”

In the run-up to the summit, Sarkozy reiterated this view, rejecting President Bush’s latest proposal as “insufficient.” He added: “You cannot be the first and strongest in the world and say to the rest of the world on such a subject that, ‘We are not interested in this and we will use technology to solve the problem.'”

He found it “encouraging” that Bush now admits there is a problem, but — showing his political sensitivity — said his purpose in meeting Bush would be “to underline my willingness to be an ally of the United States,” but not “a vassal.”

Interestingly, Sarkozy’s view on the environment is shared by most ordinary Americans — and by the new majority in the U.S. Congress. The latter, in particular, is looking for ways to link up with the United States’ G-8 partner.

Sarkozy’s view on global warming is shared by most ordinary Americans and by the new U.S. Congress. The new Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has already gone to Germany to meet with Merkel on global warming. Later this year, there will be a G-8 legislatures meeting.

Congress might link up with the other G-8 parliaments and adopt a strong joint stance on combating global warming — speaking in the name of all the G-8 legislatures and all the governments except an isolated lame duck one in the United States. It is not a position in which Mr. Bush should wish to find himself, nor would it be good for the Republican Party in 2008.

They could adopt a strong stance on it, in the name of the legislatures and people of the G-8 countries and of all the governments except an isolated lame duck one in Washington. It is not a position Mr. Bush should wish to find himself in, nor would it be good for the Republican Party in 2008.

Can President Bush make the necessary about-face? In recent weeks, he has begun to admit that he is reconsidering his stance on global warming. If he is unable to go farther in the admission of error, he could make “adjustments” in policy anyway, in the name of being a trustworthy friend and ally.

Bush is legendary for his loyalty to his friends. Why not make some policy changes regarding global warming for the sake of America’s friends and allies? He could say that he is doing it out of regard for Merkel, out of regard for Sarkozy — or out of regard for Tony Blair.

The G8 summit is Bush’s last chance with Tony Blair, but with Nicolas Sarkozy it is only the first test. Others will follow. Sooner or later, the NATO issue will come back — to find the willpower to reach a deal with Sarkozy over French reentry into the NATO military structure.

France has on several occasions offered the United States an opening for regaining a more thorough friendship. It did so under Mitterrand, it did so under Chirac — and it is doing so today. The United States blew the previous openings. In fact, it barely noticed them. The same could be said thus far of the present opportunity.

The opening will extend beyond the G-8 summit that ends today, but the summit itself is the biggest opportunity for stretching and reinforcing the opening: Merkel is presiding, Sarkozy is new to his job and Tony Blair is still around.

The opportunities for future cooperation will be larger if the G-8 test on environmental cooperation is passed — and much smaller if it is failed.