The company President Nicolas Sarkozy is keeping these days is unlikely to help reverse his flaccid approval rating. As the week wound down, Sarkozy welcomed President George W. Bush for a valedictory visit by a leader whose own poll numbers are even worse than the French President's and who is arguably the least loved head of state in the Western world. Nor would Sarkozy have done much to improve his own popularity by inviting Syria's President Bashir al-Assad to be a guest of honor at France's Bastille Day parade. (France has long been at loggerheads with the notoriously authoritarian Assad regime over Syria's role in Lebanon, and particularly in respect of its alleged hand in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister and French ally Rafic Hariri.)
On Friday evening, Sarkozy hosted a private Elysée Palace dinner for Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, an opportunity for a fond farewell to a leader the French President embraced, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Bush has repeatedly called Sarkozy "my friend" in recognition of the French leader's eagerness to repair relations severely damaged by France's opposition to the Iraq war. The amity between the two men was enhanced by Sarkozy's outspoken personal admiration for Bush since assuming the French presidency last year, long after Bush had become radioactive on the world diplomatic scene.
But Sarkozy's affection for a man reviled by most of France was partly responsible for his own precipitous decline from an approval rating of nearly 70% soon after his election, to a low of 32% in May. Public perceptions that Sarkozy's policy on issues such as Iran's nuclear program has made French foreign policy too submissive to U.S. dictates has also contributed to the French leader's slide. Although Sarkozy's numbers have crept back up to 38% of late, another high-profile love-fest with Bush is more likely drag them down than to boost them.
Then, there is the Syrian front. Although France has lately sought to improve ties with Damascus that broke down in 2005 following the Hariri assassination, France continues to accuse Syria of fomenting trouble in Lebanon. Many French diplomats fear that recent conciliatory noises from Damascus are intended simply to mask its continued troublemaking in the region, and therefore uncomfortable with the rehabilitation of Assad implied by Sarkozy's invitation.
"I'm not especially amused," grumbled French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on radio station Europe-1. Clearly troubled by the message sent by the Assad invitation, Kouchner put the best spin on it by explaining that it "doesn't leave me totally at ease, but this is what we have to do or else we'll maintain a state of tensions, difficulties and probably confrontations".
Kouchner knows the risks of realpolitik, and Sarkozy should too. Last December, the French President drew scorn in France and beyond by becoming the first Western leader to host Libya's Muammar Gaddafi on a state visit. At the time, many pundits described the extraordinary hospitality extended by Sarkozy as repayment for Gaddafi having allowed the Frenchman to play the hero in the release of six Bulgarian medics held for years in Tripoli on trumped up murder charges. Elysée officials have since privately conceded that the Gaddafi visit had been their worst PR gaffe to date.
Nor does kissing up to Gaddafi appear to have paid much of a dividend. This week, only days before France assumes the European Union's rotating presidency, Gaddafi ridiculed Sarkozy's plan to create a "Mediterranean Union" of cooperation and economic exchange as "bait" and "a kind of humiliation". Sarkozy hopes to use his tenure in the E.U. presidency to kick off implementation of that plan, but Gaddafi urged leaders of the Mediterranean-rim nations to reject the Europeans' call, sneering "we're neither starving people or dogs they can throw their bones to". Another warning still that in politics, you have to pick your friends carefully.