Sarkozy needs a lesson in European history

Swiftness is the French president's <em>raison d'être</em>

Wherever the action is, you can count on Nicolas Sarkozy getting there first: swiftness is his political raison d'être. Hence it was no surprise to hear that just 36 hours after Georgia began military operations in South Ossetia on 8 August, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was on a plane to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. No surprise, either, to see Sarkozy arriving in Moscow on day four of what had become a Russo-Georgian war, to urge the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, to agree to a ceasefire. He could have let José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, broker the peace agreement. But the French president, who doesn't believe in delegating power and who loves nothing better than inflated prerogatives, would go to Moscow as the face of Europe, and as Super President.

As he left Paris, he had said he would convince the Russians to sign the six points of the EU peace proposal "immediately". And he did. Although, with Russian troops still dithering about actually withdrawing from Georgia as I write, many observers have started questioning the "ambi guities" of the French-drafted agreement, which could leave room for a semi-permanent Russian presence inside Georgia's borders. Sarkozy's army of advisers should warn him that swiftness without reflection can be the death of diplomacy.

But why was Sarkozy so eager to be seen flexing his statesman's muscles? Because, beyond the immediate political gains of his actions, there is something about Russia and Vladimir Putin that profoundly titillates him, and if he knew his French history he would know that such a feeling goes back hundreds of years.

Catherine the Great was, of course, an admirer of the French Enlightenment - indeed, of all things French. A little later, her grandson Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon paved the way for Franco-Russian relations. At first, the two men shared a vision of, in the tsar's words, a "European Confederation". Napoleon thought that together, they would rule the world; on 25 June 1807, when the two emperors met in Tilsit, he suggested they simply divide the globe into two empires. After Europe, they would conquer Asia.

In Napoleon Symphony, Anthony Burgess describes, with strong homoerotic undertones, how the young tsar came out of their meeting dazzled by the genius of the manly Corsican. But as time went by, Alexander's admiration lessened and his attention turned to the more prosaic realities of the occupation of Finland and Sweden, and Russian interests in Poland. Bitterness grew between the former friends, with the Corsican referring to the tsar as a "shifty Byzantine". In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes at length about their mutual feelings of deep admiration and profound distrust.

A century or so later, on 2 December 1944, Charles de Gaulle met Stalin in Moscow. With France on its knees and Soviet hegemony at its peak, the admiration had clearly receded and the distrust reached new heights. Stalin wanted Poland and would not help France establish new borders in the Ruhr. In his memoirs, de Gaulle wrote of their meeting as "a tragicomedy", during which he "refused to lend his name to Poland's sacrifice".

Having learned from history, Jacques Chirac treated Russia with distant deference. Sarkozy, determined to break from Chirac in every way, has recently made a point of treating Russia as an equal and Putin and Medvedev as his buddies. He may think that he alone can influence Russia; it is, however, increasingly obvious with each passing day that Russia is not of the influenceable kind. Has it ever been ?

Agnès Poirier is a political commentator and film critic

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession