Iran General NewsSarkozy, a Frenchman in a hurry, maps his path

Sarkozy, a Frenchman in a hurry, maps his path


New York Times: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France strode into the Napoleon III salon of the Élysée Palace and staked his claim to the leadership of Europe. For Mr. Sarkozy, the most burning issue is Iran’s nuclear program. The New York Times

Published: September 24, 2007” />

PARIS, Sept. 23 — President Nicolas Sarkozy of France strode into the Napoleon III salon of the Élysée Palace and staked his claim to the leadership of Europe.

He took credit for pushing through a revised treaty for the European Union. He declared that France would return to NATO’s military command if his conditions were met. He announced that the French Navy would help protect food delivery to Somalia. He assailed his fellow Europeans for having no ideas.

“I can’t be criticized for wanting first place for France,” Mr. Sarkozy said in an interview with The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, his first with English-language news organizations since becoming president in May. He added, “If France doesn’t take the lead, who will?”

This projection of French power is like that of de Gaulle, in the 1950s and 60s, and every French leader since. But Mr. Sarkozy departs from classic Gaullist doctrine by suggesting that the path to that goal sometimes lies in aligning France — and Europe — alongside Washington rather than as a counterpoint to it.

He is, his critics and admirers agree, a man in a hurry. In the hourlong encounter conducted in French on Friday evening, Mr. Sarkozy resisted efforts to be drawn into small talk.

Visibly restless, at times brusque, he greeted his guests with stiff handshakes and unadorned hellos. Perpetually in motion, he rocked uncomfortably in a green brocade armchair and gripped the backs of the gilt chairs on either side of him. His jaw muscles twitched. His gait was awkward. He cut off his interviewers in midsentence.

He stumbled twice on the word “multilateralism,” laughing at himself the second time and turning to his national security adviser, Jean-David Levitte, to finish the word for him.

But there was nothing hesitant about the way Mr. Sarkozy, the 52-year-old leader on the French right, laid out his agenda before departing for New York to make his debut at the United Nations General Assembly.

For Mr. Sarkozy, the most burning issue is Iran’s nuclear program. France’s position, he said, is clear: “No nuclear weapon for Iran, an arsenal of sanctions to convince them, negotiations, discussions, firmness. And I don’t want to hear anything else that would not contribute usefully to the discussion today.”

“For my part, I don’t use the word war,” he said, signaling that he would tolerate no dissent on the issue.

His words were in sharp contrast to those of his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who said in a radio and television interview last Sunday that France was preparing for the “worst” situation with Iran — war. Mr. Kouchner has since declared that was misunderstood.

Mr. Sarkozy also contradicted his foreign minister a second time, saying that Mr. Kouchner’s public offer to visit Iran was a nonstarter. “I don’t think that the conditions for a trip to Tehran are present right now,” he said. “We can talk things over in the halls of the United Nations.”

Asked whether France agreed with the Bush administration that “all options are on the table,” he replied, “The expression ‘all the options are on the table’ is not mine. And I do not make it mine.” He added, “I am not determining my position on the Iranian question based on the position of the United States alone.”

He equally refused to choose between a nuclear-armed Iran and the use of force, saying, “It is exactly what the Iranian leaders want. I am not obliged to fall into this trap.”

Mr. Sarkozy has been dropping hints that France wants to return to the military command of NATO more than four decades after de Gaulle abruptly abandoned that wing of the alliance.

In the interview, Mr. Sarkozy announced for the first time two conditions that would have to be met beforehand: American acceptance of an independent European defense capability and a leading French role in NATO’s command structures “at the highest level.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, sought to rejoin NATO’s military command, but in 1997 the Clinton administration rejected the conditions set by Paris. Mr. Sarkozy also seemed to put the onus not on France but on the United States. “I would make progress on European defense a condition for moving into the integrated command, and I am asking our American friends to understand that,” he said.

He also made clear that in order to even “consider” returning to the fold, NATO’s “governing bodies” would have to make considerable space for France.

“France can only resume its place if room is made,” he said. “It’s hard to take a place that isn’t reserved for you.”

Mr. Sarkozy, a lifelong campaigner and politician, expressed admiration for the American presidential campaign, saying he followed the debates among various candidates during his summer vacation in New England. “I thought, My God, what a long race!” he exclaimed. “What energy you must have to put yourself through something like that! All praise to American democracy!”

He called himself “very proud” that a number of candidates, including the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, “quoted my writings.” And he ticked off a number of American political luminaries he had met, including Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican; former Vice President Al Gore and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, adding that he would again meet Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat.

“I want to tell the American people that the French people are their friends,” he said. “We are not simply allies. We are friends. I am proud of being a friend of the Americans. You know, I am saying this to The New York Times, but I have said it to the French, which takes a little more courage and is a little more difficult. I have never concealed my admiration for American dynamism, for the fluidity of American society, for its ability to raise people of different identities to the very highest levels.”

Mr. Sarkozy, who has been accused of being too enamored of all things American, said he considered France and the United States to be on equal footing and somehow better than many others, because they believe that their values are universal and therefore destined to “radiate” throughout the world. The Germans, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Chinese, by contrast, do not think that way, he said.

Mr. Sarkozy defended his decision to summer in America, and not somewhere in France, saying, “I don’t see why I should have given up going to the United States because a small part of the French elite professes an anti-Americanism that in no way corresponds to what the French people think — in no way at all.”

He listed the things that appealed to him during his two-week vacation: the countryside, the shopping malls, the restaurants, swimming in the lake, jogging in the woods while his 10-year-old son rode his bike alongside him. “I loved the kindness and simplicity of the people,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

Regarding his stay in New York this week, aides to Mr. Sarkozy said he did not plan to meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who will also address the General Assembly.

Breaking with traditional French policy, which has long resisted sanctions as a diplomatic weapon, Mr. Sarkozy laid out a far-reaching strategy to punish Iran economically — through United Nations and European sanctions and by exerting pressure on French and other nations’ corporations and banks not to do business there.

Strengthened sanctions, he predicted, “eventually will produce results” in persuading Iran to curb nuclear activities prohibited under Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Sarkozy expressed support for the current American-led push in the Council for a third sanctions resolution against Iran, but acknowledged that it might not be possible to achieve. Other punitive measures must be pursued, with other countries in Europe, he said, calling such an approach “an international, a multilateral, decision,” and as such one that suits him.

Specifically, Mr. Sarkozy said that France was asking its own companies “to refrain from going to Iran.” France already has urged its oil giant Total and its gas firm Gaz de France not to bid for new projects in Iran and urged French banks to stop doing business there.

Turning to the fate of Iraq, Mr. Sarkozy made plain that the country must remain intact, and said it would stand a better chance of developing without a foreign military presence. Yet he stated that France itself, which opposed the United States-led invasion in 2003 and has declined to send police or military trainers there, would offer no initiatives beyond the recent trip to Baghdad by Mr. Kouchner. “France has no mission to go into Iraq,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

Mr. Sarkozy is known for his no-nonsense approach, but he seemed especially tense on Friday. Aides said he was having a difficult day and was determined not to stumble on the delicate subject of Iran. During the campaign, he admitted that he suffers from migraines, but an aide said he was not suffering from pain during the interview.

The brusque demeanor and nonstop movement during the interview vanished during a brief photo session afterward in his office. At one point, he posed for a photograph with the two women who interviewed him, gripping his arms around their shoulders. “I have a good job,” he said.

Asked about a long, decorative silver sword that lay on his coffee table, he reinforced what he called his message of peace. “It is,” he said, “a sword of peace.”

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