PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy, initially dubbed Sarko the American for his pro-U.S. stance, is finding it much tougher to deal with Washington than he had anticipated and is recalibrating his policies accordingly.
Stung by perceived snubs from U.S. President Barack Obama and encouraged by the growing importance of the G20, Sarkozy is increasingly reaching out to non-aligned states in an effort to extend France’s international influence.
He has forged especially close ties with Brazil, is seeking alliances in central Asia and is intensifying his activities in the Middle East, using multi-billion dollar military and civilian nuclear trade deals as his calling card.
These initiatives are being played out against a discordant tone in Franco-American relations. This lack of harmony does not constitute a crisis, but is nonetheless raising eyebrows.
“Sarkozy has clearly been thrown off course in his relations with America,” said Didier Billion, a senior researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).
“America remains of primordial importance to him, but things are more complicated than they were a few months ago,” he said.
Following his election in 2007, Sarkozy swiftly established a close friendship with the-then U.S. president, George W. Bush, and buried the U.S.-French row over the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
When Obama took office in January, Sarkozy was still glowing from the praise he had received for his accomplished handling of the European Union presidency, and was convinced that he was the natural partner for the new U.S. leader on the world stage.
“There is room for the two of us,” he said, expecting his enthusiastic embrace of American values, which carries political risks at home, to pay dividends in Washington.
But the chemistry never bubbled. Analysts say Obama clearly prefers dealing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy is visibly frustrated by the situation.
Sarkozy’s critics say he is jealous of Obama’s high profile and hurt by public putdowns — such as the U.S. president’s refusal to dine with him during a visit to Paris last June.
Officials say the disconnect is centred on real issues, such as Obama’s attitude to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which has been less hardline than Sarkozy’s hawkish stance.
“There is an annoyance about what the French see as naivety in the Obama administration,” said Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
Sarkozy’s frustrations spilled into the open at the United Nations last month, when he appeared to chide Obama publicly.
“I support America’s outstretched hand. But what has the international community gained from these offers of dialogue? Nothing but more enriched uranium and centrifuges,” he said.
There are also real differences of opinion over how to deal with the lingering financial crisis, with a close Sarkozy aide accusing Washington this week of risking global inflation by printing money and “flooding the world with liquidity”.
The French government spokesman said on Wednesday that Sarkozy would propose “a new international monetary organisation which better reflects today’s world” when France holds the presidency of the Group of 20 wealthy nations in 2011.
Roughly translated, this means France wants to challenge the supremacy of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Ahead of his G20 presidency, Sarkozy has been reaching out to what he calls “countries which are bridgeheads”, creating a body of allies that will help give France international clout.
He has signed accords with Kazakhstan, looked to woo India by giving them rare pride of place at Bastille Day celebrations and struck up strong rapports with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva.
Many of his ties are being underpinned by industrial deals, such as the likely sale of Rafale fighter jets to Brazil, with France presenting itself as the perfect partner for states that do not want to rely on U.S. technology.
This ideology was on display this week, when Defence Minister Herve Morin inched closer to an arms deal with Kuwait.
“Countries in the Gulf know that they can find in France a second partner, one which is a friend of the Americans, but which has its own vision of security and stability,” he said, deploying the sort of non-alignment language that France used to roll out during the Cold War.
However, the French vision is not to everyone’s taste.
Sarkozy’s relations with China are poor and his efforts to build a meaningful union of states bordering the Mediterranean Sea have been blocked by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The French president is expected to go into diplomatic overdrive in 2011 when he holds the presidency of both the G20 and G8 club of wealthy nations, hoping that foreign policy triumphs would boost his re-election campaign in 2012.
But some analysts say he risks overplaying his hand.
“There comes a time when you have to calm things down a bit and take stock,” said Billion of the Paris-based IRIS.
“If he doesn’t want to do this because it goes against his nature, then I think the end results will be very limited.”