Ever since Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, then chancellor and finance minister, swapped notes at a conference in Birmingham on how they were going to get to the top, the two plotters have had a sneaking mutual regard for each other. Their ambition fulfilled, neither have found the job of their dreams plain sailing. If Mr Brown has stopped the leaky vessel of his government from taking in water, Mr Sarkozy’s presidency is still sinking in the polls. If either man were at the helm of a cross-channel ferry instead of a government, you would take the tunnel every time.
But of the two, it is the French president who has most to gain from his first state visit to Britain which ends today. Lampooned at home for his predilection for all that glitters (Rolex watches, gold pens and his supermodel wife) Mr Sarkozy has to sober up. His presidency urgently needs to acquire dignity, statesmanship, a sense of distance from the cut and thrust of politics, not an inextricable entanglement in them. To have appeared tanned, wealthy and happy before pale-faced countrymen struggling to pay the bills and about to undergo painful economic reforms, is a misjudgment unusual in a man who only last year was credited with being France’s most able politician.
In his speech yesterday to both houses of parliament, Mr Sarkozy called for a new era of Franco-British brotherhood. This is a part of the battle that is shaping up at home. His hardest reforms – changing work practices, pension and healthcare reform – are still to come and for this he is using Britain as a model. This may seem bizarre to Britons who have traveled to French hospitals for their operations. But as a foreign policy idea, it is not bad for Britain or for Europe. It would be a mistake to think that the Franco-German alliance, which has been at the heart of the European project, is the loser in all this. The flamboyant French president may not get on with the cerebral German chancellor Angela Merkel. But European politics is not a zero-sum game. Franco-German relations do not necessarily deteriorate if Franco-British co-operation improves.
Mr Sarkozy pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan if Nato backed the French proposals, for which he requires British help. America has called on Nato allies for more help in fighting a resurgent Taliban. An increased French presence would be a precursor to rejoining the military structures of Nato, in a way which allayed US concerns about duplicating command structures. The prize would be a military capability the European Union needs. Strip Mr Sarkozy’s words of their gushing rhetoric, and the message that both Britain and France need each other is undeniably true.