Last month’s release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks raised some eyebrows in France. Le Monde, one of the selected press outlets in the latest syndication, posed as the honest, bustling broker, in the manner of the Guardian. But Le Figaro (right of centre) got on its high horse to denounce the leaks and even Libération (left of centre) saddled up the donkey. What administration, Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libé, asked, could possibly conduct its business under round-the-clock scrutiny by the public? A state ‘has the right to protect its defence secrets’ and to ‘hold discussions behind closed doors with its allies or enemies’. Many cross-channel differences that remain the stuff of platitudes are disappearing, but there’s a clue here to one that hasn’t gone away.

French opinion is uncertain about white knights like Julian Assange, and still slow to pick up the language of rights, as spoken by WikiLeaks. In the world of governance, rights culture is one of the great climate-changers, melting away old assumptions about the exercise of power, just as the web is doing. Put the two together and, like WikiLeaks, you go through to the permafrost. ‘Rights’: human rights, minority rights, consumer rights, the right to all and any information. Whatever Joffrin thinks, these ideas are not completely alien to France. Before his ratings fell and Sarkozy dumped him in a recent reshuffle, the foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who has ‘human rights’ written all over him, was the darling of the opinion polls. Even so, there’s a residual feeling that the only real rights are political rights, like the Rights of Man, soldered into a national consensus about government and governed. With this comes a lingering faith in statecraft, a practice like law or medicine, whose success depends on the proper skills and a margin of confidentiality. Without all this, it’s thought, disaster looms (and stuff happens): see WikiLeaks on Iraq, where Chirac and the surrender monkeys were too statesmanlike to stray. Then too, for the icy calculation of national interest and the impunity of the Prince, see Mitterrand’s approach to the Rwandan genocide.

Despite professions of faith in small government, the US has found it hard to see its powerful bureaucracy brought down to size by WikiLeaks. In France there’s less talk about ‘small’ or ‘less’ or ‘light’, but it’s clear from the American Embassy traffic that Sarkozy was supposed to do the decent, gangsta client thing and pull the remains of the public sector apart. Here’s Craig Stapleton, ambassador at the time, in a memo to Condoleezza Rice on the new man in the Elysée, a few months after his presidential victory in 2007: ‘He has met with predictable opposition (most dramatically in the form of transport strikes), and some questioning among political allies of his strategy of undertaking sequential, calibrated reform rather than a Thatcherite big bang at the outset of his term.’

Stapleton, formerly co-owner with Bush Jr of the Texas Rangers, entertained high hopes for Sarkozy: he had ‘set in place a new paradigm for French foreign policy, one more favourable to our interests. Scrapping Chirac’s worldview, which equated French leadership with containing US hegemony, Sarkozy has articulated the need for France to work closely with the US – in order to address common challenges, but also as the surest way to increase France’s global influence.’ Two years in the job wasn’t long enough for Stapleton to grasp how hard it is to scrap worldviews overnight in France and how easy it is to be misled by the enthusiasms of a new French head of state, especially if you share them.

In these cables and memos, Sarkozy is the leader who wants to lead everywhere – on Europe, Russia, the Middle East, you name it – putting France at the heart of world events. And if we didn’t know already, we can tell what he thinks of his electorate from a remark made by his strategic affairs adviser, François Richier, to the Americans early on during his presidency and reported as follows: ‘Richier suggested that Sarkozy’s core conviction is that France must be pulled into the 21st century. He said Sarkozy likes to use the metaphor of a person who exercises for the first time in a while – many muscles may be sore afterwards, but the exercise has done them good.’ The president is fiercely pro-American, even if he can’t take his lazy, benighted, under-exercised compatriots with him. Like Fireman Sam, Sarkozy was always on the move, even as minister of the interior in 2006, when Stapleton describes him chasing his son’s pet dog, who is chasing his son’s pet rabbit, around the ministry’s offices in the place Beauvau. (The dream outcome for Washington would have been an old-lady-and-the-fly sequence: the rabbit is swallowed by the dog, the dog is swallowed by Sarkozy and finally the would-be president is swallowed by the senior emissary of the United States – and France lives happily ever after in the belly of the beast.) Three years later, in a note from Charles Rivkin, Stapleton’s successor, Sarkozy has become the tetchy figurehead who has his plane diverted so as not to see the Eiffel Tower lit up in the Turkish national colours on the occasion of a state visit by Recep Erdogan. By now, realism has set in at the embassy, even if Washington still harbours modest hopes.

For instance the hope expressed in January that France would refrain from selling Mistral helicopter carriers to Batman and Robin, as they’re called in the cables. The Americans made it known ‘that while we understood that France wanted to actively engage Russia, the US would prefer that France find a different confidence-building measure than a Mistral sale’. The French understood, mais bien sûr, yet by the summer Sarkozy was down in the shipyards at Saint-Nazaire, telling workers about the deal for delivery of two ships to ‘our Russian friends’, and hinting of another two in the offing. It can’t have taken the US by surprise: when diplomatic staff in Paris aren’t derailed by wishful thinking, or telling Washington what it wants to hear, they are on the button. The insistence that unrest in the Paris suburbs is not driven by ‘Islam’, as the media back home in the US like to make out, has the ring of authority; so do the constant reminders that Washington’s policies on global warming will not be taken seriously in Europe; and so does Rivkin’s portrait of a thin-skinned, irascible French president whose bling is fading. The staff in Paris even earn grudging praise from Libération: committed to ‘the observation of our leaders, sometimes verging on espionage’, US diplomats have managed to ‘fulfil their mission perfectly’.

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