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Sarkozy boosted by EU role is facing rough landing

Paris — President Nicolas Sarkozy won glowing plaudits for his high-voltage stint at the helm of the European Union, but analysts warn he could face a bumpy landing when he returns to domestic business next month.

The French leader stamped his mark on a six-month EU presidency rocked by crisis after crisis, with a hyperactive, globetrotting style that ruffled many allies, but ultimately notched up successes.

Sarkozy is credited with securing a ceasefire in the Russia-Georgia conflict in August — if largely on Moscow’s terms — before coaxing reluctant European partners into a joint strategy to tackle the global financial crisis.

Undermined from the outset by Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon reform treaty in June, his EU presidency persuaded Dublin to hold a new poll next year, nudging the charter back on track.

"For all his faults, Sarkozy brought a degree of political energy and leadership that the EU was sorely in need of," said Philip Whyte, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

Others were more forthright: the head of the Robert Schuman Foundation, Jean-Dominique Giuliani, described Sarkozy’s crisis-management as "brilliant."

"In war or peace, he’s a leader to be reckoned with," wrote Newsweek magazine, ranking Sarkozy third on a list of the global elite and predicting he would remain the "go-to guy in Europe" for Barack Obama’s US administration.

Crises aside, Sarkozy’s presidency met most of the targets it set itself ahead of its handover to the new Czech presidency on January 1.

It managed to get a new Mediterranean Union off the ground, secured deals on climate change and immigration, and made progress on military cooperation with the creation of a new European anti-piracy force off Somalia.

Even Sarkozy’s usual detractors pay grudging tribute to his work.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who clashed with him repeatedly over the past six months, has admitted: "France did a good job steering the European ship through troubled waters."

"Even if it is being said through gritted teeth in London, the French presidency of the European Union has been a success," wrote Britain’s left-wing Guardian in an editorial.

Sarkozy has reaped benefits at home from his EU performance, which helped drag his approval rating back from record lows of 30 percent, to a respectable 44 percent, according to the latest IFOP poll.

But the New Year brings sobering challenges on the domestic front as France feels the bite of economic slowdown.

Official statistics show the country heading into recession and unemployment — already among the highest in Europe — is on the rise.

And while 56 percent of French voters approve of Sarkozy’s EU track record, only 34 percent support his domestic policies.

For Whyte, the global financial meltdown, seen in France as a crisis of Anglo-American capitalism, will make it increasingly hard for Sarkozy to defend his center-right reform agenda.

The president’s social advisor, Raymond Soubie, has reportedly warned him of the risk of a major social crisis in the coming year.

Sarkozy’s government has already backtracked on education reforms as a wave of student protests fanned fears of a Greek-style youth revolt, while plans to liberalize shop opening hours were also put on hold.

"Is Nicolas Sarkozy equipped to face the annus horribilis of 2009?" asked the French newspaper of reference Le Monde on Tuesday, questioning the ability of his government line-up to handle the challenges ahead.

Keen to keep the spotlight on his achievements abroad, the French president has said he intends to somehow keep a front-seat role in Europe come January.

He has said he "will be taking initiatives" and has hopes of steering Europe’s response to the economic crisis, possibly by chairing meetings of the 15-member eurozone.

But Whyte warned he ran a real risk of alienating his EU allies.

"Sarkozy needs to remember that he is no longer the EU president. He needs to make sure he doesn’t end up blowing up the Czech presidency."

And Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations warns Sarkozy "will find it much harder to make his voice heard," without a European mandate, and with President Obama his new rival for the world’s attention.

Emma Charlton/AFP/Expatica