WikiLeaks: US admires but wary of erratic ally Sarkozy

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The United States sees France's President Nicolas Sarkozy as "viscerally" pro-American, but fears he can be a touchy and erratic partner with a complex private life, leaked cables showed Wednesday.

The latest slew of leaked US diplomatic cables paints a picture of a French leader determined to repair ties with Washington after the crisis over the Iraq war, an object of amused fascination to American diplomats in Paris.

"Your visit comes at a historic time," the US charge d'affaires in Paris told US President Barack Obama before his first trip to France in April 2009.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is the most pro-American French president since World War II and is, at the moment, arguably the more influential leader in Europe," the envoy, Mark Pekala, wrote, according to the latest leaked memo.

"A pragmatist and an activist, he can be brilliant, impatient, undiplomatic, hard to predict, charming, innovative and summit-prone," Pekala warned, noting Sarkozy's instinct to call world leaders to frequent top-level meetings.

The trove of documents released late Tuesday by international dailies dates back to before Sarkozy's election, when US diplomats were delighted to meet a presidential candidate determined to build warm ties with Washington.

Four years on, the alliance remains strong -- particularly as Washington and Paris combine to pressure Iran on its nuclear programme -- but the embassy has marvelled at Sarkozy's plummeting popularity and complex domestic life.

The US envoys worry that the "thin-skinned and authoritarian" president relies too closely on a tight inner circle of yes men, who fear to contradict him, and that he sometimes lets his private passions undermine his work.

"Sarkozy's own advisors likewise demonstrate little independence and appear to have little effect on curbing the hyperactive president, even when he is at his most mercurial," a December 2009 memo said.

"Elysee contacts have reported to us... re-routing the president's plane to avoid his seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up in Turkey's colors," it said, in one example of the tense atmosphere in the presidential team.

The tower was lit to celebrate a visit to Paris by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Sarkozy is an opponent of Turkey's bid to join the European Union and no fan of Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.

Sarkozy's marriages have also raised concern.

"On permanent overdrive and intense in the best of times, Sarkozy's recent divorce raises questions about his ability to maintain his equilibrium and focus," the US embassy in Paris wrote in an October 2007 cable.

"Sarkozy has himself spoken of his dependence on Cecilia -- 'my source of strength and my Achilles heel,' as he put it. During their separation in 2005, a highly irritable, darker Sarkozy came into view."

Within months of losing Cecilia, Sarkozy married supermodel Carla Bruni.

"In a major miscalculation in image management, Sarkozy paraded for media coverage his billionaire-life-style affair with former supermodel and current First Lady Carla Bruni-Tedeschi," a May 2008 embassy cable complained.

According to the embassy, the formerly friendly French media then turned on Sarkozy to portray him as "as a vulgar, insecure celebrity-worshipper focused only on himself and his place in the limelight."

But perhaps the most startling extract from the cables, from a policy point of view, is that the US ambassador writes in 2006 -- a year before Sarkozy's election -- that he might send French troops to Iraq.

"Sarkozy declared that France and the international community would have to help the United States resolve the situation in Iraq. Perhaps by replacing the American army with an international force," he wrote.

But the US war in Iraq remained extremely unpopular in France, and nothing came of this idea once Sarkozy was elected, although he did send more French troops to Afghanistan and brought France back into full NATO membership.

Sarkozy was also, according to the leaked cables, not afraid to criticise the foreign policy of his predecessor Jacques Chirac's government to his American friends, even while he was interior minister in the outgoing administration.

"Sarkozy is instinctively pro-American and pro-Israel," the embassy wrote, according to the memos, noting what they called Sarkozy's "Jewish heritage" a reference to his French Catholic mother's Greek Jewish father.

The leaks also reveal more touching personal scenes showing Sarkozy's softer side, such as an occasion in 2006 when the US ambassador saw the then interior minister chasing a pet rabbit round his office with his nine-year-old son.

© 2010 AFP

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