French President Nicolas Sarkozy's triumphant march to the Elysée was paved with a promise to ignore formality. To his credit, that style has helped deliver some reformist victories at home. But that undiplomatic swagger can also get Sarkozy into trouble especially when he talks trash about foreign leaders.
That's exactly what happened this week when French daily Libération revealed that Sarkozy had delivered some astonishingly unflattering comments about several foreign officials including American President Barack Obama. During a lunch with a group of French legislators Wednesday, Sarkozy reportedly described Obama as inexperienced, ill-prepared by advisers, and thus far "not always up to standard on decision-making and efficiency." And those turned out to be relatively kind words. Sarkozy said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been reluctantly forced by economic realities to copy his own policies for dealing with the recession. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said the French President, was simply "not very clever." (Read why Jacques Chirac is more popular than Sarkozy.)
According to Libération, parliamentarians at the meeting said Sarkozy had described the new U.S. president as having "a subtle mind, very clever and very charismatic, but he was elected two months ago and had never run a ministry." On matters like Europe's efforts to fight global warming and in his call for a world free of nuclear arms, Sarkozy apparently said Obama was naïve.
Sarkozy also suggested that Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's multiple elections wins is proof of his greatness. "What is important in democracy is to be re-elected," Libération cited Sarkozy as saying, a phrase unlikely to join "fraternité, égalité et liberté" as a description of French democratic ideals.
When international newspapers picked up the comments the Elysée went into spin mode, denying the most offensive quips, particularly those about Obama. But parliamentarians party to Wednesday's dissing included members from France's opposition Socialist Party, who had no qualms about confirming Sarkozy's comments and at times add detail to them.
As a result, doubly disgusted reports from abroad frequently contained condemnations similar to the Times of London's description of Sarkozy as a "bitchy little princess". Spain's ABC said Sarkozy's behavior confirmed frequent complaints in France that his "superiority complex has no limits." By midday Friday, the global coverage of Libération's report had come full circle, with French media like the daily Le Monde running stories about "The Arrogant Sarkozy Fingered By the International Press."
The one question missing in the media frenzy was, however, what took so long for everyone to catch on? Even before his election as president, Sarkozy had secured a reputation as a man with a quick and nasty temper, sharp tongue, and obsession with coming out on top in verbal slap fights particularly ones played out in public. Presidential aides regularly say that privately Sarkozy "has no time for diplomats, whom he considers wl ers".
During a November, 2007 visit to protesting fishermen in Britany, Sarkozy was reduced to furiously babbling as he sought to call a detractor out to insult him face to face. A year later, Sarkozy snarled "get out of here, you poor a hole" to a man who refused to let the president shake his hand during a book fair appearance. Just hours before the now notorious Wednesday lunch, Sarkozy delivered a monumental verbal lashing to a trio of cabinet members for publicly jockeying for advancement ahead of a shake-up. Astonishingly, that demonstration of presidential butt-kicking was then recounted by the government's spokesman.
Presidents pushing people around is old hat, of course. But Sarkozy's criticisms of some of the most powerful leaders on earth is rare. Merkel in particular might feel slighted. Sarkozy's threat to bolt London's G20 summit earlier this month if Washington and London didn't bend to his demands on stimulus strategies and financial market regulations was made with the support of Merkel who put her previous disdain and mistrust of Sarkozy aside in order to back him.
Sarkozy also visibly swelled with pride beside Obama as he hosted the American to a rock star's welcome to NATO's 60th anniversary event. Now, his behind-closed-doors comments not only raise questions about Sarkozy's understanding of international diplomacy but leave the French president looking like the lightweight leader he says he sees when he looks at his peers.