Peter Hoskin

L’entente nucléaire

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There's no wound that a press conference won't heal, or at least that's the impression that David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy created earlier. The pair played down the tensions and grudging handshakes of the past few months to talk up Britain and France's ‘incredibly strong relationship based on shared interests’. And there was more than just talk too: they announced a £500 million deal between French and British companies for nuclear power plants. And they hailed progress towards the creation of a joint ‘command and control centre’ for military operations.

Perhaps this mutual bonhomie explains why Downing Street isn't taking the opportunity to meet with the man who may soon unseat Sarkozy — the Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande — when he visits London next week. But there seems to be a firmer reason too. According to a useful analysis by Sam Coates (£) in today's Times, Cameron actually believes Sarkozy might overcome the odds and triumph in his country's elections:

‘Within the past fortnight Mr Cameron has been telling friends he can easily foresee Mr Sarkozy’s return to the Elysée. The Whitehall machine changed gear accordingly.’

‘...there are signs that voters have closed their ears to him. If you ask almost anyone in France why they plan to vote against Sarko, your interlocutor will invariably refer to Fouquet’s, the exclusive watering hole on the Champs-Elysées. This is surprising, since it refers to an episode not just from the first months or years of Sarkozy’s mandate but the first minutes. Sarkozy went there at the invitation of the owner, Dominique Desseigne, chairman of the Barrière group of casinos, to celebrate his 2007 election victory with France’s elites. He left tens of thousands of his less well-heeled supporters milling about in the Place de la Concorde, and earned himself the nickname le président des riches. So the way people have gone off him is personal, rather than ideological. You understand the difference: Barack Obama angered Catholics by trying to force their hospitals to offer birth control; Sarkozy angered Catholics by checking his email during an audience with the Pope.

One top UMP aide, someone I have always liked for his frankness, told me over coffee on Tuesday that if Sarko had done more in the past five years, perhaps people would have found something to talk about besides Fouquet’s. Most French people give him credit for raising the age of retirement, and thus allowing the country to save money on pensions. But beyond that, his legacy is one of small reforms. Military bases closing, university rules, minimum sentencing for certain crimes — worthy initiatives all, but hardly the ‘rupture’ promised when he came to power in 2007.

Ivan Rioufol, a Figaro columnist who has just published a book called The Urgency of Being Reactionary, says people feel let down by two things in particular. First, that Sarkozy got bullied out of a discussion of “national identity” early in his term by opponents accusing him of racism. Second, that after a 2005 referendum in which 55 per cent of French rejected the proposed constitution, saying no to further European integration, Sarkozy allowed key parts of the constitution to be passed by treaty, over their heads.’