PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy, displaying his boundless energy and love of the world stage, left the controls of his Libya mission this week for a two-day dash to oversee crisis management in China and Japan.
The globetrotting appears to be doing little if any good to Sarkozy’s record-low popularity rating at home, raising the risk that whatever credit he gets internationally does nothing for his re-election prospects in 2012.
At the forefront of world news since he spearheaded the West’s intervention in Libya, Sarkozy has turned his attention to global economic woes, opening a G20 monetary seminar in China, then flying to Japan to be the first foreign leader to offer sympathy in person for the earthquake/tsunami disaster.
“You are not alone in this crisis. The world is watching you and the world admires you,” Sarkozy told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, hours after laying out his thoughts on monetary reform to G20 ministers and academics in Nanjing, China.
The intercontinental firefighting is typical of Sarkozy, who won plaudits early in his term for guiding Europe through economic crisis as EU president and for brokering a ceasefire between Georgia and Russia in 2008.
Today, however, the foreign sorties risk leaving troubles untended on the homefront, where voters are punishing him for stubborn unemployment and price rises and where cracks have appeared in his UMP party.
“He has a temperament that makes him want to run to put out fires wherever he sees them. It’s an impulse he hasn’t managed to get under control,” said Jean-Thomas Lesueur, head of the Institut Thomas More think-tank which follows Sarkozy closely.
“Running off to Japan is all very well but I don’t think it will win him many points at home. If I was him I would be worrying about internal affairs,” said Lesueur.
The French, who could vote Sarkozy out in a first round of the 2012 election according to some recent polls, are mainly in favor of the coalition air strikes Sarkozy has led in Libya.
But it is unclear whether that will lift his popularity ratings, languishing around 30 percent. His economic policy is ill-viewed, which may explain why he seized on a surprise drop in the public deficit on Thursday to defend it.
Seeing their president as first to clasp hands with Japanese officials since the brutal earthquake and tsunami that killed some 28,000 people and triggered a nuclear disaster may fill the French with pride — but only briefly.
In Japan, Sarkozy showed he now wants to be at the head of nuclear safety issues by calling a May G20 meeting to discuss new global standards, ahead of International Atomic Energy Agency talks on the same issue in June.
Sarkozy’s decision to open the seminar in Nanjing is symbolic of how much energy France is putting into trying to get Chinese backing for its goals as G20 president this year.
Only a hard-fought compromise kept China on board at a G20 meeting in February to agree on indicators to gauge imbalances.
Before his speech in Nanjing, Sarkozy squeezed in a visit to Beijing where he spoke candidly with President Hu Jintao on China’s opposition to the intervention in Libya.
Sarkozy seized on the Libya crisis to reassert France’s voice in its former colonial backyard of North Africa after his mismanagement of revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
His past forays onto the world stage were well received at home. But with polls placing him behind left-wing and far-right rivals, global diplomacy may not be the right tack to take.
Indeed many of those who say they dislike Sarkozy say it is precisely because of his showiness and impulsiveness.
Touchy-feely TV shows, including one where Sarkozy talked to nine adults about their grievances, have not stopped the rise of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, suggesting his efforts to mimic her hard line on immigration have fallen flat.
Analysts say it is time for Sarkozy to prove his mettle on the domestic front, for example by creating jobs.
“His words no longer mean anything,” said analyst Francois Miquet-Marty at pollster Viavoice. “When he spoke to the people on TV last year, he immediately lost four points in the polls.”
Sarkozy risks looking weak, not strong, by running around the world when his support base is crumbling, Lesueur said. “He looks a bit lost. He gives the impression of not knowing where he’s going and not having the right weapons for the battle.”
Additional reporting by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Brian Love and Mark Heinrich