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France's Whirlwind of Change

By Jim Hoagland

PARIS -- Remember this, Mr. President of the United States of America: You may have regrets about things you were not able to finish in office. But only winners, like you and like me, ever get the chance to change their nations.

Nicolas Sarkozy ended a farewell toast to George W. Bush at an informal dinner Friday night with that stunning mix of leaderly consolation and bravado. I paraphrase slightly the French president's words to capture their essence, which tells you more about the speaker -- and his future -- than about the visiting guest of honor and his past.

It could hardly be otherwise in a France dominated for the past year by Sarkozy's tumultuous presidency and his equally turbulent personality. In France today, there are no conventional politics. There is only Sarkozy. He monopolizes and amalgamates the political, the cultural and the show-business spheres of his country as few men ever have done in any country.

"France is moving, Mr. President of the United States of America. France is changing," Sarkozy said in another verbal manifestation of his insatiable longing to transform his tradition-bound society. But Sarkozy again deployed terms that described him more accurately than they did their ostensible subject, France.

His need to be constantly in motion, to change settings, and to command others was on display as he guided Bush briskly from table to table to shake hands with his 100 or so guests at the Elysee Palace.

"Hold on," the American president said at one point, "we haven't said hello to these folks over here," as he eluded Sarkozy's grip to stroll over to another table. He also told his host not to be so quick to write his political obituary: "I still have six months and a lot of things to get done."

While Sarkozy has not succeeded in changing much about France yet, he has recently changed his own ways -- and his standing with a severely disenchanted public. Aided by Carla Bruni, the attractive, clever first lady who sat beside Bush at dinner, Sarkozy has driven his public approval ratings from Bushian levels of 30 percent and lower back above 40 percent and counting.

The still-unfolding revival of Sarkozy's popularity allows him to relaunch the overhaul of a calcified government and the sweeping economic reforms he promised in last year's presidential campaign. On Tuesday, he unveiled a firm commitment to bring France back into NATO's military structure as part of the most radical changes in French defense policy and structures since Charles de Gaulle adopted the force de frappe as a nuclear arsenal in 1958.

Sarkozy must hope that the drama of policy battles over such issues will replace the melodrama of his personal life. The newly omnivorous French media feasted on Sarkozy's very public and messy divorce last October and his remarriage in February to Bruni, a former model who is now one of France's leading pop singers. Her next album, due out in July, is drawing front-page coverage for lyrics about cocaine that are hardly first ladylike.

"The Elysee has become the backdrop for a show that is 'Desperate Housewives,' 'The West Wing' and '24' all rolled into one," says novelist and commentator Philippe Labro, who credits Bruni's own ambition and shrewd marketing skills with helping Sarkozy get back on track.

She seems to calm him and contribute to a more reflective, presidential image. Standing beside Bruni after the Bushes left the Elysee, Sarkozy's kinetic physicality seemed for a rare moment to shift into neutral.

He will need all the calm she can provide now that the well-insulated French military establishment has learned the details of a vast reorganization proposed in a massive White Paper drawn up by a 35-member commission appointed a year ago.

The armed forces will be given the task of identifying and fighting terrorist networks at home (and in Africa) as a priority, instead of concentrating on territorial defense. Redundant bases will be closed, an expensive new aircraft carrier and new jet fighters have been put on hold to finance the restructuring and global deployment of intervention forces, and Sarkozy has declared that France "will now participate fully in NATO," four decades after de Gaulle withdrew from the alliance's command structure and ordered American troops off French soil.

As an important element of his comeback, Sarkozy is essentially adopting a 9/11 Commission report before a French 9/11 occurs. He is giving France, and its allies, change they should believe in and actively support.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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