A Frenchman’s air miles

Agnès Poirier on Sarkozy’s habit of getting there first

When fans of politics want to know what countries Nicolas Sarkozy has visited since his election last May, they can simply log on to the Élysée Palace website. Visitors will find what can only be described as an awesome schedule of travels and stopovers. Compared to the British Prime Minister's own travelling, the French president's appetite for the world looks pharaonic. Or is Napoleonic a better word?

Sarko has visited three countries a month on average - not counting two trips to Afghanistan. Nor does this include his constant travelling within France, from stricken suburbs to angry Breton ports.

His first visit was to Angela Merkel. Nicolas may not hand-kiss the German chancellor as Gentleman Jacques did, and Merkel may hate Sarkozy's casual double peck on the cheeks, but at least they are both keeping up a tradition established after the war. This was a way of celebrating the Franco-German friendship, still seen as the foundation of peace and co-operation in Europe. Merkel did exactly the same back in November 2005 when, the day after her own election, she paid a visit to Paris before going on to London.

After Berlin, Sarkozy visited the UK, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Gabon, Senegal, Hungary and - only then - the United States for the UN General Assembly in September. This was followed by Bulgaria, Russia, Morocco, the US (again), Germany (again), China, the Vatican, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, now, India - for once following closely in Brown's footsteps. So what does this exhaustive (and exhausting) list say about his priorities in foreign policy?

Small bonus from Libya

First, Europe: his visits to Brussels, Berlin, London and Madrid, but also to Warsaw, Sofia and Budapest, show Sarkozy's determination to restart the grand European project that stalled with the resounding French and Dutch "No" to the EU constitution in summer 2005. The adoption of a "mini-treaty", supposedly a more concise and digestible text than Giscard d'Estaing's constitution, signed by the EU's 27 members in Lisbon in December, is considered Sarkozy's first victory on the international scene. Observers recall how, late at night in Brussels on 23 June, while Merkel was trying to convince recalcitrant Britain, the French president won over the Polish twins. Some say this was through sheer bullying, a method he is well known for.

Second, Nato and the end of diplomatic froideur towards the United States. Sarkozy may have waited four months before crossing the Atlantic - the French would have hated him to go sooner - but his penchant for all things American has helped to erase "freedom fries" from this year's edition of Webster's Dictionary, while infuriating France's traditional allies in the Arab world. Although not Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, who recently, thanks to Sarkozy, enjoyed his first state visit to a western country since his banishment from international diplomacy.

To justify the visit of the Libyan dictator to Paris in December, Sarkozy argued that he was leading a "foreign policy of reconciliation". Plus there was the small bonus that French workers would benefit from ?14bn of contracts with Libya.

On Nato, defying de Gaulle's legacy of fierce independence, Sarkozy announced that he would be ready to make "ambitious and pragmatic proposals". These remain suitably vague, yet he seems keener to embrace the alliance than any predecessor.

Third, international trade. As in the old days of colonisation, Sarkozy seeks new markets, new consumers and fruitful co-operation in far-flung places such as China and India. Long gone is the time when China paid for British tea and French silk with opium, or when the French and British armies forced the weak Manchurian dynasty to open its ports and grant their countries favourable trade tariffs.

Even more than before, China represents a mine of commercial opportunities for the two former colonial powers (see above). It is no coincidence that Brown and Sarkozy both go east in their foreign travels. Brown leaves cultural flamboyance to France; what matters is trade.

The reluctant European

When British fans of politics seek to compare the travelling appetites of Britain's and France's leaders, they find it a Byzantine task. Revealingly, the Downing Street website doesn't have a "Prime Minister's travels" section, perhaps because, compared to Sarkozy, Brown's travelling looks light.

The British Prime Minister's first sortie abroad was, surprisingly, to Berlin but that trip was followed closely by the traditional pilgrimage to Washington. Of course, there were a few quick trips to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of British troops fighting there. But the bipolarity of Brown's foreign policy - the good old Atlanticism that got his country into the Iraqi mess, and the paramount importance he gives to trade in relations with China and India - is tempered only slightly by the odd show of goodwill towards Europe, which most Europeans find hard to believe anyway.

Brown has long seemed more at ease in the Highlands or on the American east coast than in other places. Is that because he never took a gap year to roam the world?

"Normally you travel abroad a lot for a first time when you're a university student. I spent my summers in hospital because I had a series of eye operations from an injury playing rugby, so a lot of my original plans for foreign travel were frustrated," he admitted to Time magazine last year. He also said: "My father being a minister of the church, missionaries start to be the first influence you have on hearing about what's happening in the developing countries, in India as well as Africa."

Over the past few months, Gordon Brown has forged an image of a reluctant European and a withdrawn economist, more interested in "British values" than in universal ideas other than his notable passion to fight poverty in Africa. He seems to have gone back to a foreign policy of "Little Englandism", away from Blair's "rules-based multilateralism". A good thing for some, a lost opportunity for others.

So, while Brown concentrates on the economy and Britain's trade balance, you can be sure Nicolas Sarkozy will be advocating major schemes to the world, such as his Mediterranean Union - with throngs of paparazzi on his tail.

Agnès Poirier is the author of "Touché: a Frenchwoman's take on the English" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times