The sky above Paris was closed to civilian air traffic, helicopters clattered at low altitude over the Champs-Elysees, thousands of gendarmes patrolled the streets and security forces lined the Seine and the rooftops around the Grand Palais.
A total of 43 heads of state and government convened in the French capital for the Mediterranean summit at the weekend. While the French embarked on their summer vacations, Paris was brought to a complete standstill by this top-level political tourism.
For Nicolas Sarkozy, the enormous logistical effort makes sense. The French president, who also holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and is polishing his credentials as a bridge-builder between the North and the South, tried his hand at mediation between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to resume diplomatic ties in Paris.
Sarkozy also cast himself in the role as Middle East peacemaker. First President Mahmoud Abbas, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heaped praise on the Frenchman in front of the TV cameras. Sarkozy basked in role as skilful director of world diplomacy. And today, Monday, he will be the celebrated host for the July 14 Bastille Day parade.
Shining on the World Stage
It's been a good few days for Sarkozy. The row about his attendance at the opening of the Beijing Olympics and his meeting with the Dalai Lama has been forgotten, as has the ugly debate about European Central Bank interest rates. The domestic squabbling about the reform of the army, the media and the constitution has been shelved for now. And, at least for a few days, there were no new reports about Sarkozy's slide in opinion polls.
Instead, Sarkozy has been shining on the world stage, together with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the co-president of the summit. He spoke of a "future of progress" and of a union of countries that share "the same love for life."
The gathering of the 43 heads of state and government -- the kings of Morocco and Jordan sent their representatives -- under the glass dome of the Grand Palais was undeniably impressive.
For three hours on Sunday the leaders of Europe and of the countries lining the Mediterranean were gathered together, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and EU Commission President Manuel Barroso. Plus representatives of the World Bank and European Investment Bank, the Arab League, the Islamic Conference and the Maghreb Union -- a top-level forum.
The round table didn't just bring together antagonistic neighbors like Morocco and Algeria, but it also included Israel -- a minor miracle given the company. But it wasn't easy. Even figuring out where everyone was going to sit required not a little diplomatic sensitivity. In the end, the placements were alphabetic, alternating between the two sides of the table.
Only Libyan head of state Moammar Gadhafi stayed away, allegedly because of the Israeli presence. But the highly symbolic meeting suffered not a bit by the absence of Tripoli. Even prior to the meeting, the Elysée Palace celebrated it as an "historical event."
And it was more than anything a victory for Sarkozy and his vision of a "Club Med." -- even if the result is quite a bit different than the Mediterranean Union the French president had envisioned. Originally an idea intended to bestow some foreign policy gravitas on Sarkozy during his presidential campaign, the idea became a centerpiece of his administration in the autumn of 2007 -- and promptly turned into a source of friction with other European Union leaders. The Germans were especially unhappy that Sarkozy, the newcomer, seemed intent on replacing the largely unsuccessful Barcelona Process with a French-led forum that bypassed Brussels.
The conflict has since been defused and France's dream of a Mediterranean Union has been renamed the Union for the Mediterranean -- and instead of an exclusive club of those directly on the sea, it now stretches all the way from the geysers of Greenland to the deserts of Jordan. The result is an unwieldy beast that hasn't even clarified where its secretariat should be -- Morocco, Algeria and Malta are all candidates. Likewise unclear is how long the leadership duo of France and Egypt will remain on point.
In short, the danger of the union degenerating to little more than symbolism is large. But so too is the political will to avoid such a fate. The result is a long list of project proposals designed to show the new group's capacity to act: such politically safe ideas as cleaning up the Mediterranean, promoting nuclear and solar energy, a Mediterranean University, and access to clean water are all part of the bouquet of ideas put forth over the weekend. Shipping lane security was also discussed as was export assistance for small and mid-sized companies in the region. The gathered leaders also were able to make brief statements beneath the lofty glass dome of the Grand Palais -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, was given three minutes to talk about the economy.
Where Is the Money?
At the conclusion of the summit, Merkel had more to say, praising the union for its "very good start." She said it will lead to a "new level of cooperation" and said that such a collaboration with Mediterranean states is "strategically important" for the European Union. It is also, the German chancellor pointed out, a useful framework within which a number of antagonistic countries can meet. "That could become important to help solve the Middle East conflict or for Syria," she said. The EU, she added hopefully, could promote political progress by helping to develop economies in the region.
Hopes, in other words, are high and ideas are plentiful. Money, however, might not be. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika brought up the funding issue in comments to his country's APS news agency, saying it wasn't clear where money will come from for the union's numerous project ideas. Hosts France and Egypt, however, brushed such concerns aside. Diplomats in Paris were likewise unruffled. "It's not a problem," assured a government source in Paris. "The money is there when you go looking for it."
Ideally, the EU, World Bank and Gulf States will take care of the funding, and there may be private funds willing to support particularly lucrative projects. "First the suggestions, then the means" seems to be the recipe. The novel financing will thereby bolster economic cooperation and in the end change the political dynamics in the Near East -- that, at least, seems to be the hope.
In the event that this wonderful new world doesn't materialize or age-old enmities torpedo the projects, France's diplomats suggest falling back on "variable geometry" -- a creative term that basically means participants should pick and choose what parts of the agreement they like best.
The result is a concluding document that sticks to well-meaning declarations of intent. Controversies like human rights and the Middle East conflict have been semantically soft-pedaled or sidestepped. And despite Sarkozy's fancy talk of the "inseparable Mediterranean and European dream" the VIPs in Paris never came together for the obligatory summit group photo. A picture with the Israeli Prime Minister would still be seen as politically volatile for many of the Arab leaders present.
None of that affected Sarkozy's good mood. Still referred to as "rais" -- or "leader," in Arabic -- by his colleagues from the Maghreb, the French president placed himself at the entrance to the Grand Palais for 43 handshakes with the visiting dignitaries. Forty-three handshakes, 43 souvenir photos -- a perfect Sarko-show.