Thus it was that last Wednesday night, I was yakking away, glass of red in hand in approved Left Bank form, in a crowded Georgian restaurant at the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés, waiting for the president of Georgia and his co-author Raphaël Glucksmann, who in equally approved form were both late. Piles of Je vous parle de liberté (Hachette Littératures, 2008) awaited inscribing under the watchful eye of two Hachette publicists. Nobody was checking invitations. There was no visible security among the modish crowd jostling for spicy canapés inside the bar and only a small police van parked at the corner of rue du Sabot and rue de Rennes down the block. You could not have better telegraphed that Saakashvili--who, as he reminded everyone regularly during his 48-hour-trip, spent a year studying in Strasbourg and there met his future wife--felt at home in France, in the Sixth Arrondissement, and with this crowd.
Saakashvili eventually arrived and gave a short, graceful speech in very good French--more family reunion than formal declaration--particularly saluting his co-author's father, André Glucksmann, the bowl-cut coiffed author of The Master Thinkers and famous as the reuniter of Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron (over the fate of Vietnamese boat-people in 1979). Glucksmann père floated above the proceedings looking like a gaunt but rather healthy mummy. He had read him while a student, Saakashvili explained, marvelling that someone understood the Soviet evil so well. He had not even known if Glucksmann were still alive, much less could he have imagined that he would one day meet the philosopher's son in a muddy park in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, that the two would become friends, and would write a book together. Everyone in the overcrowded room was smiling. After all, one could hardly do better in terms of well-connected tourisme engagé. (The French don't play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon but Six Degrés de Jean-Paul Sartre.)
It was a perfect moment, one of the best of Saakashvili's whole tour. He was in France to make the case that Russia had violated the terms of the imperfect cease-fire agreements negotiated by Sarkozy in the name of the European Union on August 12 and September 8, and urge firmness. Saakashvili had even cadged an Elysée invite from Sarko just a day before the EU-Russia summit began in Nice with the French in the seat of the rotating EU presidency.
Throughout his whirlwind tour, Saakashvili was careful to give credit to the Sarkozy-led EU intervention, but it was felt at the time that the Europeans had conceded too much, especially in treating as a fait accompli a Russian military presence in the two seceding Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, Europe is split between the established "engagement with Russia is necessary" line, peddled by Commission president José Manuel Barroso among others, and a resistance front let by the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, and a somewhat wobbly Gordon Brown, who argue that there should be no resumption of talks on EU-Russia commercial partnership before Russia pulls back the 8,000 soldiers she has on the ground --some as close to Tbilisi as 30 miles. Overall, the engagement line is winning.
Nowhere could this be more strongly felt than on France Inter, the state radio, bright and early Thursday morning as Saakashvili sat in the studio as the guest of the 8 A.M. news program. We French still get our hard news and spin from radio throughout the day, only switching to television at night. France Inter is a kind of mass-market NPR, with a relentlessly po-faced liberal line that has only ever pleased, or sought to please, the Quai d'Orsay--as France's foreign ministry is known (the mandarins, not the minister himself, whose ideas are largely seen as irrelevant by his administration).
They were awaiting the Georgian aventuriste loaded for bear. Introducing the guest, Bernard Guetta, the morning foreign affairs moderator, reminded us that Saakashvili's calling Europe's possible abandonment of Georgia a "new Munich" had "the support of the American right." Having painted the Neocon cross squarely on Saakashvili's chest, Guetta continued. Georgia had "provoked" Russia, which felt threatened by the suggestion of an "unnecessary and unfeasible extension of NATO" to Georgia and Ukraine, but "thankfully" the United States "had not moved" to defend its ally. Common sense and world stability dictated that Europe and the United States should abstain from "pushing Russia too far" and should instead consider her "offer of cooperation." Nicolas Demorand, France Inter's news editor, then brought out "independent evidence" that Georgia had attacked first. Even the listeners during the phone-in segment were hostile.
Saakashvili, though, gave as good as he got. The OSCE monitor who gave the supposed "independent evidence" has since been fired, he countered. "There wasn't a single Georgian soldier on Russian soil at any time. It was our towns which were bombed, our territory which was invaded, our population which was pushed out or killed by the thousands, even after the EU agreement was signed." A town called Akhalgory was even renamed Leningory: "This in the 21st century." His hosts were dismissive and urged him to reconsider. Joining NATO was a pipedream. "America's support for Georgia weakens and will weaken even more under President Obama." In vain did Saakashvili quote the president-elect's words from the debates, or note Senator Biden's trip to Georgia during the summer war. "Don't you feel how the wind is changing in Washington?" he was admonished.
The rest of the day, save for his 40-minute meeting with Sarkozy, Saakashvili spent giving print interviews, taping more television segments, and, finally, joining Raphaël Glucksmann on Le Grand Journal, a one-hour early evening news program on Canal+, France's premier pay-TV channel.
This could have gone for or against Saakashvili. Glucksmann's presence and the duo's practiced, if slightly smug, allusions to their youth, clinched it. The Le Monde-quoting Saakashvili (with one more reference to meeting his wife in Strasbourg) was anointed as cool by both the studio audience and the show's regulars. These had decided to use the occasion to bash Sarkozy, always a well-received exercise. ("He campaigned saying that Putin had Chechen blood on his hands, and now they're best buddies! All he answered last summer when Putin said he wanted to have you 'strung up by the balls' was 'You can't do that, do you want to end up like George Bush?' ")
Saakashvili smiled at the show's famous political puppets, at the generously décolletaged weather girl, and even during the short video segment showing him coming out of the Elysée meeting earlier in the afternoon and looking a little forlorn on the palace steps when Sarkozy turns away after shaking his hand. The Georgian president demonstrated the required sense of distance accepted as proper manners in the postmodern political discourse practiced by countries where the memories of foreign invasion has faded away.
Throughout his French tour, Saakashvili gave his rather impressively sophisticated all and could only hope that it had advanced the cause of his beleaguered country on the European stage.
© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008
"Sarkozy sinks even further!" was the headline in Le Canard Enchaîné, France's Left-wing answer to Private Eye, as the French president launched a new nuclear submarine at Cherbourg last week.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who is beginning a two-day state visit to Britain on Wednesday - three months before France assumes the European Union's rotating presidency - will arrive weighed down by a controversial image and baggage as heavy as the gold Rolex watch which he has only recently been persuaded to give up.
Fellow European leaders consider, with feelings ranging from fascination to dismay, his precipitous slide in the opinion polls of more than 30 points in less than three months; his party's poor performance in last week's local elections, and the cloud of high-octane gossip that has surrounded his very public divorce and his new marriage, to the model and singer Carla Bruni.
All those marital complications may sound horribly familiar to the Queen, of course, as the mother of three children who have divorced.
She will do the French president and the new Mrs Sarkozy what Élysée aides called the "rare honour" of accommodating them at Windsor Castle - not Buckingham Palace - on Wednesday. Mrs Sarkozy has rehearsed her curtsy, ready to "follow proper British protocol", French diplomatic advisers confirmed.
The Sarkozy visit is not just designed to make him look as lofty and presidential as polls at home suggest the French would like him to be. It is also aimed at producing some substantial diplomacy, drawing Britain into a more decisive role in Europe and as a supporter of France's return to Nato, four decades after General de Gaulle walked away from the Atlantic Alliance in a huff. If it happens to miff the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, after Berlin pulled the rug from under Mr Sarkozy's projected Mediterranean Union by voting against EU subsidies, so much the better.
For, almost obscured by the publicity and paparazzi pictures, is the fact that Mr Sarkozy has a long-matured plan of what he aims to achieve in France and abroad. "I've had 30 years to think of what I'm going to do," he told an interviewer shortly after his election last year.
He may have been surprised, and infuriated, by his loss of popularity; he thought he had been elected with a clear mandate to modernise France, and that the French wouldn't mind a younger look and style to go with it. (They did, terribly; they wanted a traditional figure who would adopt a grand bedside manner while applying the forceps.)
But anyone discounting Mr Sarkozy as a four-year lame-duck president, facing opprobrium at home and abroad just like America's George W Bush, is missing the point. Mr Sarkozy is no family heir comfortably groomed for power, no École Nationale d'Administration upper civil servant gone into politics with a safety net and a network of supercilious grad school friends.
His own father, a Hungarian refugee from communism, told him, before leaving the household for a peripatetic life full of pretty women, that "with a name like yours, you'll never make it in French politics".
Mr Sarkozy got his start at the grassroots, handing out leaflets and organising young Gaullists. He snatched the city hall at Neuilly aged 28, when his political mentor had to undergo a routine operation. He has always made enemies, and has often been unpopular.
In 1995, he briefly considered quitting politics, after he left Jacques Chirac's side to support his Right-wing rival Edouard Balladur's bid for the presidency, only to see Mr Balladur trounced by the more experienced Mr Chirac. At the time, newspaper cartoons showed Mr Sarkozy as a diminutive, cartoonish traitor, and it seemed his reputation could not recover. But it did, as he forged alliances, seized the Gaullist party from Mr Chirac's remote stewardship, and eventually defeated rivals to stand alone as the Right's presidential hopeful in the polls.
After the 2005 riots, when he was interior minister, the Left, attempting to whip up an "Anyone But Sarkozy" front, painted him as a quasi-fascist and racist. This doesn't work so well today, now that he has appointed six former Left-wingers to the most diverse cabinet in French history. Mr Sarkozy is no Margaret Thatcher. He is a man of conviction, but more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. Head-on conflict doesn't work with the French, so he would rather avoid it when possible.
He believes France will suffer fatally in the global competition stakes without reforms. But he wants to slide these past the unions by agreeing to any number of temporary sweeteners, so long as his real goals - structural reform of France's too-generous social and welfare net and of the health and state school services, plus lower tax on businesses and services - remain intact.
This strategy succeeded last November, when Mr Sarkozy defused a threatened transport strike while reaching an agreement on a common retirement age for public- and private-sector workers. And even as his party was dealt a resounding slap in last Sunday's local elections, an opinion poll found that two-thirds of voters want reforms to be implemented faster. Seated in their collective dentist's chair, the French seemed to beg for the drill - and for the whole thing to be over with already.
Mr Sarkozy has now announced that he will increase the pace of reforms, to derisive comments from the Left. He can, however, brush these aside because at national level he has only a divided opposition with which to contend.
The recent "bling-bling" anti-Sarkozy campaign was waged on style, not substance, precisely because the Socialist party is still split between two leadership contenders (Ségolène Royal, whom Mr Sarkozy beat to become president, and Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris), has no platform, and can't manage to make peace with the Greens and three small Trotskyite parties whose votes it crucially needs.
The president's real opponents are within his own party, where the old anti-Atlanticist Gaullists, horrified by what they see as a betrayal of France's non-aligned tradition, are hoping that a challenger will emerge to stand against him for the Gaullist candidacy in the 2012 presidential election.
One such might be Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux and a former prime minister; another possibility is the former foreign secretary and prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. But Mr Sarkozy's bet is that he has more political experience, and more experience of life's reversals, than any of his rivals.
Watch him this week as he proclaims a "new fraternity" between France and Britain, in a carefully honed speech to both Houses of Parliament. He has been knocked down before, but never out.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008