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Harper, Sarkozy contrast in style and substance at La Francophonie

Nicolas Sarkozy, left, French President, speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prior to the group photo at the Francophonie Summit in Montreux, Switzerland, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010.

Dominic Favre/Dominic Favre/The Associated Press

Among global leaders, there are few who contrast more emphatically in style and substance than Stephen Harper and Nicolas Sarkozy, and seldom was this more evident than at Saturday's La Francophonie

France and Canada are the two largest financial contributors to the association of francophone states. But the Canadian government has no dog in the fight to preserve and expand French language and culture globally. The pride of France, the mother country, is deeply invested in that struggle.

And while the Canadian prime minister is a cautious, incremental politician who prefers private deal-making to public crusades, the French president is wont to fire fusillades in every direction --hoping, perhaps, to score a hit somewhere, sometime.

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Mr. Harper's address focused on Canada's good works in promoting French and aiding French nations: the relief mission in Haiti, the maternal health initiative, inviting the Secretary General Abdou Diouf to the G8 and G20 summits; assuring French not only "its rightful place" at the Vancouver Olympics but at the Paralympics as well, "a precedent in history,"

"The Organization of La Francophonie can always count on Canada to promote values we all cherish -- protecting human rights, the rule of law, justice, development and humanitarian assistance," he concluded.

La Francophonie is overwhelmingly third-world, and the commitment of many of those in the room to these principles was dubious at best. No matter: the Prime Minister's string of bromides reflected the federal government's attitude toward La Francophonie: happy to belong, happy to contribute, but not particularly concerned about preserving la gloire de la langue française or using La Francophonie as a tool for multilateral statecraft.

Mr. Sarkozy, by contrast, was a fireball, throwing out one proposal after another: urging reform of the governing body of the International Monetary Fund; demanding a permanent seat for Africa and Latin America on the UN Security Council; reviving his proposal for a bank tax; excoriating the evils of "monolingualism" and "monoculture"-- that would be English -- and decrying currency speculators and manipulators.

He has pitched each of these ideas before. There is no evidence he is making the slightest headway convincing the global community to agree. But it was all done with great élan.

Sandwiched between the two speeches was Quebec Premier Jean Charest's, which was perhaps appropriate. Quebec and New Brunswick have member status at La Francophonie, and the Quebec premier is the voice of French Canada to the world, especially when an Anglophone is Prime Minister.

Mr. Charest wants to host an international forum on protecting the French language in 2012. He urged the members of La Francophonie, who represent a third of the seats on the United Nations, to work for the promotion and protection of French in political and diplomatic forums.

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"If La Francophonie won't defend the French language, no other institution will do it for us," he implored.

There is virtually nothing that Nicolas Sarkozy proposes that Stephen Harper doesn't oppose. In particular, the Prime Minister was instrumental at the G20 in killing the Franco-European campaign for a bank tax. The two don't see eye-to-eye, and it's not simply a question of their respective heights.

But La Francophonie is Mr. Sarkozy's spotlight. Mr. Harper was happy to let him steal it.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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