Ambitious French G20 president looks to elections at home

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France took the helm Friday of the G20 grouping of the world's most powerful rich and emerging nations, and President Nicolas Sarkozy quickly made it clear he has grand plans for the one-year presidency.

But one key aim remains unspoken -- a relaunch at home for Sarkozy ahead of presidential elections in 2012.

Sarkozy made only a flying visit to this week's Seoul summit, arriving on Friday, the morning after the summit officially began with a dinner for world leaders, and leaving shortly after the closing ceremonies.

He stopped for long enough to vow that France would carry out its new role with "responsibility and realism" despite "colossal" challenges.

But as a key architect of the G20's rise as maker of global financial regulation during the economic crisis, Sarkozy has had many opportunities to air his ambitions for his year at the helm.

Chief among these is reform of the international monetary system, on which he says France seeks a debate "without taboos".

Sarkozy said in a speech to French ambassadors on August 25 that with instability threatening global growth, he believed it "necessary" to "put in place instruments to avoid excessive currency volatility".

But barriers to this plan include the world's two biggest economies. The Chinese appear in no hurry to allow the yuan to appreciate, while the dollar is set to weaken again after the Federal Reserve said it would inject billions into the languishing US economy.

As the US and China vie to boost their exports, European countries -- beset by weak growth, high unemployment and in many cases hefty public debt -- are simply struggling to keep their heads above water.

Also among Sarkozy's goals are stabilising commodity prices after food riots in Haiti and Africa in 2008, and reforming global governance, including IMF reform.

He said Friday he would meet IMF managing director Dominique Strauss Kahn in December, amid speculation Kahn might prove a rival for the French presidency in 2012.

France also hopes to secure a seat for Africa at the UN Security Council.

Action on all these issues is "unavoidable", Sarkozy said in August, but "they won't be resolved in the coming year. What we want is to push them as far as possible before we hand over the baton."

Receiving Chinese President Hu Jintao last week, Sarkozy himself admitted it was "very difficult" to be optimistic about this week's G20 summit, given the enormity of the task.

World leaders agreed Friday to try to redress trade imbalances and avoid currency devaluations, but hopes of rapid and specific measures were stymied by a war of words between America and major exporters led by China.

Eighteen months away from domestic polls and with his approval ratings stubbornly low, Sarkozy is counting on the G20 for a lift to his international stature.

Even his political opponents hailed France's European Union presidency in 2008. From January 1, France will add the chairmanship of the more exclusive G8 club of rich countries to its G20 presidency.

Sarkozy hopes this global exposure, along with a planned cabinet reshuffle, will also allow a fresh start at home, where unpopular pension reforms aimed at fixing the public finances led to crippling strikes last month.

But a former minister from the now-opposition Socialist party said: "He hopes to reinvent himself through the G20, but even if he proves an excellent president of the G20, there will be close to no benefits from that in France."

© 2010 AFP

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