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)