Dec 19, 2008

Columnists - Tony Blair on Nicolas Sarkozy

There are times when Nicolas Sarkozy resembles a force of nature rather than a conventional political leader. He has energy, ideas and vitality in abundance, as he showed in such matters as his handling of the Georgia crisis and the global economic downturn. Of course, as with any new leader, 18 months — Nicolas was elected President of France in May 2007 — is insufficient time to make a final judgment. But certain elements are already clear.

First, Nicolas has the hallmark of any true leader: a capacity to take decisions and implement them. He sees a problem and wants to solve it. What's more, he believes he can.

Second, he is prepared to think outside the box. Reflect for a moment, and the construction of his government in France is a remarkable achievement. His Foreign Minister — the immensely capable Bernard Kouchner — is a Socialist, as are several other ministers. Nicolas has adopted bipartisanship with not only a natural grace but also a wholehearted and sincere embrace. He stands in the modern postideological mold. He wants to get things done, and he wants the best people to do them.

Nicolas recognizes the value of a broad base and of consensus to provide the context for his policies. This is not so that there can be a politics of the lowest common denominator but so as to ensure that no necessary radical step is seen as an act of ideology rather than one of necessity. And we should not omit from the list of his achievements the appointment of France's first black female and Muslim ministers — or, indeed, the feel of a government of youth and vigor.

With such an attitude, Nicolas' political opponents are often surprised and confounded, left uncertain as to how to retain their own bearings in the changing political landscape created by his maneuvers. People can accuse him of acting from lack of political principle. He can just as easily say he is acting with a lack of party prejudice.

Third, he has put France on the map. He has a high profile and a real standing in the world. You agree or disagree with him: you can't ignore him. This is not to be underestimated in modern politics. It gives a country traction, it draws in allies, and it helps create a sense that other countries need to befriend a nation on the rise, one whose view counts. Nicolas' reaching out to the U.S., under President Bush, was not expected except by those who knew him. But it has been effective. The U.S. sees him as an ally. The disputes of the past have not been forgotten, but they have been put to one side.

Today France can play a role in the Israel-Palestine question. In June, Nicolas went to the Knesset and did a typically Sarkozy thing. He exhibited that he understood Israeli anxieties and concerns. He showed himself a friend. He then delivered a sharp and direct message, saying that "there can be no peace without stopping settlement." The message was all the more telling precisely because it was from someone who genuinely came across as a supporter of Israel, not someone indifferent to it.

Fourth, he showed, as President of the European Union, that he knows how to take center stage and get action. The differences within Europe over exactly the right action to stimulate the European economy will remain. But under his leadership, Europe looked as if it were acting in concert. He reached out to Britain, though it is not a member of the euro zone. The G-20 summit in November with President Bush, for which Nicolas had advocated, yielded as much as could be reasonably anticipated in the circumstances. There was a dynamism surrounding the French E.U. presidency that was impressive and important. In the crisis over Georgia, for example, where Nicolas brokered a cease-fire, you felt Europe had a voice, a presence and a policy. It has not always been so when a crisis has occurred.

The economic and financial crises have dominated political coverage in all political systems. They overwhelm preconceived ideas and positions. But we shouldn't forget that Nicolas came to power espousing the politics of la rupture; in other words, advocating a specific break with the past and being up front about the need for radical reform in France. These reforms are still a work in progress. But they provide a clue as to his essential nature as a politician. For Nicolas is determined to do what he believes in or do nothing. He has no interest in occupying the Elysée for the sake of it. It is too early to tell whether he will win through on all fronts. But of his determination, there is no doubt. And that is what makes him a leader of significance and stature.

Blair, former Prime Minister of Britain, is the Middle East envoy for the Quartet

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