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The International Herald Tribune - October 30, 2008 by Steven Erlanger The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is running as fast as he can, but the European recession is gathering pace. After initially good reviews for his leadership and quick response to the crisis, even Sarkozy's vaunted hyperactivity is starting to seem a little counterproductive, especially among his allies. He is seen as something of a magician, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find meaningful rabbits to pull out of a more tattered hat. He tried again on Tuesday, faced with major layoffs from French companies like Renault, a quarterly decline of more than 23 percent in building permit applications and a sharp drop in consumer confidence, as measured by the government, to one of the lowest levels in 20 years. The signs of economic caution are everywhere here, including even a sudden drop in the sale of bottled water. Trying to counteract fears of higher unemployment as the economy slows, Sarkozy announced a new program of subsidized work contracts, warned companies not to make unjustified layoffs and promised to loosen restrictions on short-term job contracts and Sunday work. The Socialist he beat for the presidency, Ségolène Royal, said Tuesday that "with a new plan practically every two days," Sarkozy had "a credibility problem." At the very least, she said, "we must pay attention that each plan announced should start before announcing the next." But the problem runs deeper. Sarkozy is trying to promote a stronger economic role for the leaders of European Union states that use the euro, including a more powerful role for himself, in order to put pressure on the European Central Bank and the European Commission, which largely control the euro-zone economy. But other major states, especially Germany, are skeptical about his intentions. They believe that Sarkozy, who has often excoriated the Central Bank for its focus on limiting inflation, wants to sharply increase the size of France's budget deficit — despite European Union restrictions — to stimulate an economy considered to be in recession and to create jobs. At the beginning of the American subprime mortgage crisis, Sarkozy, with France as the current six-month president of the European Union, got good marks for taking action. He called summit meetings, rushed to Washington, made proposals and even pulled the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, whose country does not use the euro, into an extraordinary summit meeting of the leaders of the states using the euro — the so-called Eurogroup. In large part, the activity was intended to calm Europeans looking for leadership in a confusing time. But they are also going to look for results, said Katinka Barysch, an economist and the deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. "For Sarkozy, it's a tricky strategy," she said. "In a situation where confidence is in such short supply, having a politician leave the impression he's in charge and can do things can be good. But if like Sarkozy, you convene one summit after another and present one idea after another, you raise expectations you can't fulfill." Recent pronouncements by Sarkozy have rubbed the Germans and the British the wrong way, in part because he has reverted to an old habit of acting without consulting his allies. Quite unusually for Europe, Sarkozy has also called other leaders to summit meetings on extremely short notice, sometimes just a day, a senior European diplomat said, causing consternation and confusion. Sarkozy's relations with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, have deteriorated again, diplomats and French officials say, over both his lack of consultation and his efforts to pressure the European Central Bank. In particular, Sarkozy has called for two European initiatives that have been widely criticized. The first is a European Union sovereign fund to protect the ownership of important business with suddenly low stock prices. The other is a "unified economic government" of the European Union that would bring the heads of state together on economic issues, and not just the finance ministers. Sarkozy argues that leaders must lead, and that with the Czech Republic and then Sweden, neither of which uses the euro, taking over the European Union presidency in 2009, Europe's ability to deal with the global financial crisis will be reduced. He wants a new dialogue between country leaders and the European Parliament, suggests Daniel Cohen, a professor of economics at the École Normale Supérieure, as a way of undermining the European Commission. Sarkozy would also like to lead the Eurogroup for that period, instead of Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, Cohen said. "There is a need to think and talk at the level of Europe, because there will be hard times coming," Cohen said. "The ability of France to fight recession will be contingent on the size of its fiscal deficit," which is already at the European limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product. Sarkozy — and not him alone — wants the European Commission to relax the rules because of the recession, and that will produce "a debate in difficult circumstances" between France and Germany, which supports the limits and does not want to see European institutions undermined. Sarkozy has worked politically without any real ideology in this crisis, promising safety to the French, appealing to nationalist instincts and trying to play an important role in Europe, and he has helped himself in the polls, said Pierre Rousselin, the foreign editor of Le Figaro. "Sarkozy is a bit a magician without clothes, but the important thing is the perception, and he's doing pretty well," Rousselin said. "The time will come when people ask, 'Where's the beef?' But I'm not sure we've reached that point yet. To energize Europe itself is a pretty good thing."

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