One of France’s leading political commentators and a founding member of The French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI), Dominique Moïsi is perfectly placed to assess the impact of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first six months in power, both at home and abroad. While continuing to act as a senior adviser for IFRI, France’s leading independent international relations centre, Moïsi has also published numerous books on geopolitics and writes regular columns on foreign affairs.
Moïsi’s fief is a fourth-floor apartment in Paris’s eighth arrondissement. Books and CDs line the walls of the study that he shares with an enormous, placid cat. Indeed, with his horn-rimmed spectacles and full head of silvery hair, Moïsi puts one in mind of Edward Lear’s famous poem The Owl and The Pussy Cat. Speaking English with the unhurried calm of a Frenchman who knows the diplomatic value of words, Moïsi, gives his verdict on President Sarkozy.
Monocle:One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s mottos is “work more to earn more”, do you think this is catching on in France?
Dominic Moïsi: I think so. I think contrary to our reputation, popular among Anglo-Saxons, the French can work, like to work and they will do so if their work is benefiting them. So, yes, this is a motto that works but it pre-supposes that confidence is restored and that the economy is flowing freely and this isn’t the case.
M:Sarkozy’s pre-election promises, which included substantial tax cuts, are fast emptying French coffers. Europe is looking on anxiously. Has Sarkozy got a plan?
DM: I hope so, but I have my doubts. This is where I would probably say there is the greatest level of doubt about Sarkozy. Can you run the economy the way he does it? By making wilful declarations such as, “There will be 3 per cent growth because I want it so, therefore it will be the case.” It’s surprising. I think the goal of the president was to restore French dynamism and confidence by giving them an appetite to spend. I understand this kind of political logic but in reality France is still way behind and the growth of the economy will not go beyond 1.8 or 1.9 per cent in 2007. So there is a strong element of scepticism.
M:The past month has seen Sarkozy have several run-ins with the European Central Bank’s president Jean-Claude Trichet who he has accused of “facilitating speculators” by pumping liquidity into the markets. Is this a relationship that can be patched up?
DM: I hope so because it is deeply hurting France’s key relationship with Germany. There is no grasp in France of the importance of the independence of the ECB. The Germans were extremely reluctant to give up the mark and the compensation for that was a strong euro backed by a totally independent ECB. By attacking Trichet the French are attacking not only Europe but Germany too.
M:Sarkozy has displayed a Zelig-like ability to jump from one world stage to another, hardly breaking into a sweat. Were you
expecting all this foreign activity?
DM: President Sarkozy surprised many of us. He was expected to be a president with a mandate to change France within France. Suddenly one realises he is also changing France’s position in the world. For the moment we’ve seen a flurry of activities, most of them good, many of them in contradiction with the others.
M:Last August Sarkozy raised the possibility of military action against Iran, yet in a recent interview with the “International Herald Tribune” he ruled out the prospect and instead proposed sanctions. This seems to be one of those contradictions.
DM: The philosophy of the French is that we have to speak tough so that America doesn’t have to act tough. The French never said the military option was the right one, nor that they would themselves intervene militarily. Jacques Chirac tended to emphasise dialogue as opposed to toughness; Nicolas Sarkozy has reintroduced toughness as a condition of the credibility of dialogue.
M:In the same interview Sarkozy said that he would not necessarily oppose Turkey joining the European Union. This also seemed
to contradict earlier statements Sarkozy had made about not wanting Turkey to join. Is Sarkozy mellowing?
DM: Well, he’s mellowed in terms of formulation. But deep down he has not changed his position; he is fundamentally against Turkey’s entry into the European Union. His words are chosen so as not to offend Britain or the United States. In his way he is a very pragmatic man.
M:Does the United States feel in any way threatened by a resurgent France?
DM: No, I think America deeply welcomes the return of a much closer France. America can now say, even if everything is going wrong, at least we have a comforting voice in Paris. When American diplomats come to Paris and repeatedly say they want a strong Europe, a strong France, and that they want to help us become stronger, I believe they mean it. They have learned the hard way. The period when America was denouncing Europe is gone.
M:Sarkozy recently said that he would like France to resume military leadership under Nato, after a 40 year absence. Do you
think America and the rest of Europe will welcome this?
DM: Yes, I think that America and Europe would probably be willing to give the French part of what the French want: which is the creation of a strong European pillar within Nato. The French army is very much in favour of it. There is a small part of the Quai D’Orsay which is strongly resisting it on traditional grounds, but it is a losing battle if the Americans and Sarkozy play their cards well. I think it’s likely that France will return to a new NATO within the next two years.
M:Is Sarkozy intent on flexing France’s military muscle?
DM: France and Britain are the only two European countries that see the projection of force as an element of their international identity. We are former colonial powers. To intervene is to exist for France. The rest of Europe doesn’t share that appetite, but our means are relatively limited and there is a risk of over extension. Within limits it is possible that the French presence in Afghanistan will be reinforced, but it’s totally out of the question that the French will get militarily involved in Iraq.
M:Sarkozy has also said that he wants France to be a major player at this November’s planned US-sponsored Middle East peace conference.
DM: France has special cards to play in Lebanon, maybe in Syria, in Egypt… France was perceived originally as a friend of the Arabs and now France is perceived also as a friend of Israel. France is not going to replace the United States, but France on the side of the US can play a role.
M:Finally what has Sarkozy got left to prove on the world stage?
DM: He has proven himself to be the most gifted politician of his generation, now he has to prove to himself, to the French and to the world that the brightest of politicians can turn himself into a statesman.
1946: Born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine.
1967: Graduates from the Institute for Political Studies in Paris; Masters student at Harvard; PHD in government from the Sorbonne.
1978: Begins teaching at the Institute of Political Studies.
1979: Co-founds French Institute of International Affairs.
2001: Publishes “France In An Age of Globalisation”, co-written with former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine.
2002: Begins teaching at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw.