Tony Barber Sarkozy bounces back

For those of you who missed Nicolas Sarkozy’s appearance last week at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, there are always YouTube and Dailymotion. In one revealing clip, the unforgettable 1968 student rebel Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a Green MEP, is shown berating the French president for his decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

The tieless, slightly crumpled Cohn-Bendit waves his arms about, jabs his fingers and slices his hands through the air. Sarkozy, immaculate in a dark suit, remains seated, listening carefully, his fingers caressing a pen.

In response to Cohn-Bendit’s accusation that he has gone soft on China over human rights, Sarkozy starts by teasing his opponent: “Mr Cohn-Bendit, I know how generous you are. You’ve never been stingy with advice, especially advice for me.” Then the president makes the killer point: “You can’t boycott a quarter of humanity.”

It is a startling thought that Cohn-Bendit, at the age of 63, is 10 years older than Sarkozy and worse dressed. But the real lesson from last Thursday’s political theatre is that Sarkozy is capable of sheer brilliance under pressure.

He had just flown halfway round the world from the G8 summit in Japan, but in Strasbourg he delivered a long speech – having discarded his prepared text – and then answered questions from various MEPs for well over three hours. By the end, Hans-Gert Pöttering, the European Parliament president, wasn’t the only legislator eating out of Sarkozy’s hand.

One senior French official told Sarkozy it was his most impressive performance since he won the French presidency in May 2007. Of course, that was three days before he hosted more than 40 European, North African and Middle Eastern leaders in Paris at a summit that launched a new platform for co-operation in the Mediterranean region. 

That meeting, fraught with risks, went pretty well, too. After a wobble at the start of France’s six-month EU presidency, when he went too far in attacking the European Central Bank and the European Commission’s trade policies, Sarkozy is getting attention for the right reasons.