After less than a year in office, the popularity of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is dwindling rapidly. Apart from irritating the French, he's been ruffling feathers abroad -- most recently in Berlin.
Nicolas Sarkozy prefers to take his own path, but that's not going over well in Europe
Scheduling difficulties -- this diplomatic euphemism was the official reason from Paris for letting two Franco-German meetings slip through the cracks this week.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde should have been received by her German counterpart, Peer Steinbrueck, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, but le President had something else in mind: He took the minister on a trip to visit businesses in the countryside. After all, local elections take place on March 9 and 16, so bilateral relations apparently have to take a backseat.
French-German relations aren't quite so amicable right now
Several days ago, Sarkozy postponed a March 3 meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel by three months. The unofficial summit had been planned far in advance.
"Club Med" concerns chancellor
At the diplomatic level, the cancellations are brushed off as inconsequential. But it's no a secret that ties between Paris and Berlin aren't exactly close. The German chancellor is still disgruntled about Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union initative. Originally conceived as a kind of consolation prize for Turkey, which Sarkozy doesn't want in the EU, it's become a serious project for the French president.
Germany, however, is worried that France is splitting the EU and looking to take a leadership role in Europe. And Sarkozy's invitation to the Mediterranean heads of state to visit Paris on July 13 -- one day before the rest of the EU heads of state arrive to celebrate France taking over the EU presidency -- did nothing to dispel concerns.
Berlin is not alone in its irritation with the French president, who took office in May last year.
Broken promises, tactless plans
In January of this year, he promised French fishermen that he would do away with fishing quotas when his country assumes the EU presidency on July 1. But just a few weeks earlier, France had signed a fishing regulation law. Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier was hard-pressed to calm the ensuing storm of protest.
France doesn't want Turkey in the EU but suggested an association treaty for Ukraine
In early February, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso reprimanded the French government for not making enough of an effort to economize.
Also at the beginning of the month, French diplomats came up with the idea of an association treaty with Ukraine at a time when, according to the German weekly Die Zeit, speculations over an eastward EU expansion are taboo.
What's more, French-speakers in Switzerland, Canada and Belgium are furious that Sarkozy wants to integrate broadcaster TV 5 Monde in a purely French holding company. The partner countries own a one-third share in the francophone broadcaster.
Distracted by local campaign
But any judgements on Sarkozy's foreign policy should take into account that he's under significant pressure abroad, said the director of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg, Frank Baasner.
"There are just a few weeks until the local elections," said Baasner. "If his party suffers a setback, his popularity will be completely lost."
France takes over the EU presidency in July
"France's foreign policy is domestic policy, for the time being."
In de Gaulle's footsteps
Sarkozy is not the first president to be accused of going it alone or displaying his omnipotence. Charles de Gaulle, the Resistance general and post-war president made France into a nuclear power independent of the United States. In 1962, he called for a "Europe of fatherlands" led by France.
Baasner pointed to the continuity between de Gaulle and Sarkozy. The idea that Europe is an extension of France is deeply rooted in the French consciousness, he said.
But France's current president also has his own style, said Baasner. "What surprises even the French is the coolness, the near aggressiveness of his style."
That aggressiveness was most recently on display earlier this week when, during a visit to a Paris agricultural fair, Sarkozy insulted a bystander who refused to shake his hand, telling the man to "get lost," followed by some choice French expletives.
Nevertheless, many European leaders have had to go through crises before finally becoming grounded. Sarkozy -- and France -- may just have to prepare for a process of refinement "through the power of reality," Baasner said.