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Battered at home, Sarkozy seeks salvation in agenda abroad

French President Nicolas Sarkozy waits for Greek Prime minister Georges Papandreou on November 15, 2010 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Papandreou who is on a two-day visit in France is also to meet with his French counterpart Francois Fillon later on today.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images/Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

When Nicolas Sarkozy appears on television Tuesday night to make a rare address to the French people, he will be selling himself, after months of polarization and cultural conflict, as a whole new President - and in two important ways he will genuinely be one.

First, he will be able to claim he is president of the world, in a manner of speaking. On Friday in Seoul, Mr. Sarkozy became president of the G20 group of major industrial and developing nations - an elected position for which he spent months lobbying other leaders, and which he hopes to use to reshape the world's economic and political agenda, challenging the dominance of the United States and its currency and leaving a distinctly Gallic mark on the world.

Second, he has just become the President of a whole new French government, after a bloody cabinet shuffle on Sunday that saw his "cabinet of openness," assembled after his 2007 election victory, purged of almost all of its Socialists, centrists and ethnic minorities.

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Gone are the likes of human-rights activist Bernard Kouchner, the flamboyant Socialist Party foreign minister, and Fadela Amara, the French-born urban-affairs minister and daughter of Algerian parents, all of them replaced by stalwarts of Mr. Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

After three years of conflicts, including his decision this year, against the wishes of his less conservative ministers, to ignore European Union citizenship law and expel ethnic Roma from France, Mr. Sarkozy will now be overseeing a government composed only of his fellow conservatives.

It is no coincidence that both of these new presidencies have been launched at once, as Mr. Sarkozy will make clear to voters. With little more than a year remaining before the spring 2012 presidential election, facing poor polls and sharp resistance from many branches of French society, he is deploying a strategy of flight from the domestic.

Unlike leaders in most other countries, Mr. Sarkozy is employing foreign policy as his path to election victory. His final major act of domestic politics, his colleagues say, may have been his victory last week in raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, a move that led to weeks of riots that paralyzed Paris for much of this autumn. With that done, he has left domestic matters in the hands of the new cabinet, led once again by Prime Minister François Fillon, and departed for a year on the world stage.

"We have returned to the imperative of stability and professionalism," Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, a Sarkozy loyalist, told French reporters on Monday, saying there is "no room for improvisation" in the new cabinet.

The hyperactive President is using this new homogeneity at home to launch a bold international agenda, which began this weekend with an effort, alongside Chinese President Hu Jintao, to unseat the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. (Similar efforts have been launched, without success, at several recent summits).

It has long been Mr. Sarkozy's ambition to turn France into an influential power through the use of multilateral institutions: In 2008, he used the then-rotating presidency of the European Union as a platform for France's economic ideas, taking advantage of a power vacuum between the Bush and Obama presidencies to seize a very active role, with then British prime minister Gordon Brown, to push for a stimulus-based solution to the credit crisis.

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The success of that initiative, both internationally and domestically, has converted Mr. Sarkozy into a President who sees international bodies as his path to salvation.

This time around, there is a more pressing motive. It is very likely that his chief rival in the 2012 election, if the opposition Socialist Party is able to organize itself to pick its best leader, will be Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who abandoned French politics in 2007 to take up the presidency of the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

That, too, was a tactical move of Mr. Sarkozy's: He lobbied to have Mr. Strauss-Kahn appointed to the regulatory body to get him out of French politics, with hopes that the Socialists would keep appointing weak leaders and their best man would disappear into international bureaucracy.

That was before the financial crisis. Since then, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has been hailed as a saviour of the world economy for his work in propelling stimulus, bailing out Hungary, Ukraine and Greece (and possibly soon Ireland and Portugal) without the formerly divisive tactics of the IMF, and persuading nations to agree on reform approaches. Within France, he is widely viewed as the most popular candidate; polls suggest he is the one candidate who could beat Mr. Sarkozy neatly.

In other words, he has beat Mr. Sarkozy at his own game, using an international body to build domestic respect. So the G20, for Mr. Sarkozy, is a third-act attempt to seize the mantle of international prestige.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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