Nuclear collaboration, economic turmoil and an EU army may have been at the top of the agenda for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s official visit to London this week, but for the British media there was only one thing at the top of their agenda: Carla Bruni. The former supermodel singer and now first lady of France has dominated coverage of the visit. In fact the couple were greeted in London with naked photos of the first lady plastered all over the front pages of the British tabloids – one of the many nude photos of Bruni floating around out there is being auctioned in New York this week.
Out for drinks with some American friends last night, they expressed frustration that such trivial tabloid fare was dominating the coverage of this important state visit. Granted it is all rather silly, with some news reports even calling Bruni “France’s Princess Diana” (a stretch to say the least!) But Bruni’s visit was actually important for a clear reason: Sarko’s ‘celebrity’ lifestyle and his whirlwind courtship and marriage to Bruni following his divorce has invited the scorn of the French population which has seen his behavior as decidedly unpresidential. The visit to Windsor Castle to meet with Queen Elizabeth II needed to bring respectability back to the office and demonstrate to the French people that both Sarkozy and Bruni, whose former boyfriends have included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, could be taken seriously on the world stage. Essentially it wasn’t such a difficult mission, all they had to do was show up dressed appropriately and not screw up. But part of Bruni’s mission was to look elegant and sophisticated next to the Queen, and she seems to have succeeded in that.
It is endlessly amusing that the president of the French Republic has been forced to come hat in hand to the British monarch hoping that some of her credibility will rub off on him. But that’s exactly what this visit to Windsor is all about. Facing plummeting public support and a hard loss in the recent regional election, Sarkozy desperately needs to do some damage control, and restoring his public image seems to be top priority. It was also amusing to me to see Sarkozy and the Queen chatting in her coach yesterday. Considering he speaks barely a word of English and she speaks fluent French, there’s no doubt in what language they were speaking. The French president comes begging the English monarch for her blessing, and they speak in French! Has the world gone topsy-turvy?
Of course personal tribulations of Sarkozy are just a sideshow, and there have been some substantial developments during this visit. One has been Sarkozy’s ebulliently warm language about France’s relationship with the UK, even saying that the current so-called ‘entente cordial’ between the two historical rivals should be upgraded to a “friendship” and praising the “strength and dynamism” of the British laissez-faire (for Europe) economic system. It’s hard to imagine these words ever coming out of the mouth of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, and his flowery language has prompted some to speculate that he is turning his attention away from the Franco-German partnership (the historic core of the EU) and toward the UK. Sarkozy has a notoriously cold relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Significantly, Sarkozy also proposed to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown that the two countries collaborate on new nuclear power plants, an arrangement that would stir little controversy in France but would be hugely unpopular in Britain. In the proposed joint nuclear power program, France would offer its expertise in building new nuclear power sites across the UK, and the two would also export civilian nuclear technology to non-nuclear states across the world.
Also likely to be unpopular in the UK is Sarkozy’s plan to commit a huge number of French troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and return France to the NATO military structure. Such a commitment by France would probably expect a similar increase by the UK to the mission, just as the UK public is increasingly demanding that the UK withdraw its troops from the country.
It is likely that Sarkozy also discussed with Brown his plan to ask the United States in exchange for France rejoining NATO and committing more troops to Afghanistan, for its blessing in creating an EU army. One can only imagine how receptive Brown was to that one.