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22 February 2012updated 26 Sep 2015 8:31pm

Cameron is Sarkozy’s friend in need

The Prime Minister really doesn't want a Socialist to win in France and he's not afraid to show it.

By Rafael Behr

It is neither a surprise nor a secret that David Cameron wants Nicolas Sarkozy to win France’s presidential election in April.

It isn’t a surprise because Sarko, for all that the two men have had their differences, is a fellow leader of the centre-right and has been a useful partner in defence and security cooperation. They worked together in the campaign against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. That kind of military partnership counts for a lot in international diplomacy – enough, at least to compensate for a bunch of snide comments made about each other on the periphery of European summits.

Besides, Sarkozy’s closest rival, Francois Hollande is a Socialist, running on an anti-austerity, anti-Big Finance ticket whose victory would threaten to tilt the balance of European power leftward. Naturally, Cameron doesn’t like the idea of that.

The UK prime minister’s preferences are no secret because he shared them in an interview with Le Figaro, a conservative French newspaper, when on a visit to Paris last week.

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Cameron lavished praise on the incumbent President and offered his unambiguous support. This has raised a few eyebrows. It is not considered good form or shrewd diplomacy to explicitly endorse one side in a foreign election, given that the other guy might win. John Major’s relations with Bill Clinton got off to a notoriously rocky start because the British prime minister had supported George Bush Snr, the defeated Republican candidate.

Meanwhile, Hollande is visiting London next week, mainly to woo the capital’s large French ex-pat community. He is making time to see Ed Miliband, but has not yet had an invitation to Number 10. A spokesman says the PM as “no plans” to meet the man who could be President. I doubt Hollande is much bothered by the omission. There is no huge electoral advantage to being seen hobnobbing with the Tory leader, although perhaps meeting foreign leaders helps a challenger look Presidential.

For that reason, Sarkozy would probably rather keep Cameron all to himself. His campaign is relying heavily on the claim to be a heavyweight international figure, experienced enough to grapple with the epic crises of the times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is practically on secondment to the Sarko campaign to reinforce that message.

There is, it must be said, no suggestion that the French President asked his British counterpart to snub Hollande and no indication Cameron would oblige if asked. Maybe their diaries just didn’t work out. One conversation that, I’m told, did take place in Paris between Sarkozy’s and entourage and Cameron’s on the subject of the forthcoming election consisted of the French side asking the Tories for advice on how to stage a come-back when languishing in the polls, citing the example of John Major’s 1992 victory. My source doesn’t reveal the answer, but I imagine it was “run against Neil Kinnock.”