A presidency of crisis

Centre européen de Sciences Po
The French Presidency’s assessment is quite balanced, depending on the issues and the observers. The main success underlined is the ability showed by the French Presidency to deal with the two international crises that emerged during its term: the Georgian conflict and the financial and economic crisis. According to Jean-Dominique Giuliani, President of the Robert Schuman Foundation, the French President dealt with the different crisis in an absolutely brilliant way, “allowing ambitious decisions to be taken by the EU and materialised a European willingness that seemed to ‘dissolve’ into a discordance culture”.[1]
The way it dealt with the Russo-Georgian crisis appears as one of the first and main successes of this Presidency, almost unanimously recognised by French media. According to “Les Echos”, Sarkozy managed to present a well balanced proposition, preserving European interests, and helped Europe to mediate the conflict in a way it had never managed before.[2] Thierry Chopin (Professor at the College of Europe) and Lukas Macek (Sciences Po) consider that France managed to play a good mediator role in this crisis allowing, for the first time, Europe to end a conflict on its own initiative.[3]
The management of the financial crisis has been assessed with more differentiated viewpoints. French economist Michel Aglietta underlines the fact that, even though the first G4 meeting has been a little chaotic, the French Presidency was able to convince all their partners – especially the Germans – and to propose a common toolbox for the Eurogroup.[4] Former State Secretary for European Affairs Pierre Moscovici, however, considers this G4 not only as chaotic, but also artificial, not to mention useless.[5] If Michel Aglietta welcomed the initiative of calling for a G20 meeting aiming at reforming the world finance sector, Pierre Moscovici remains moderate considering that, “if the initiative is right, the results are uncertain”.[6]
The ‘plan to relaunch Europe’ has been criticised. According to “Libération”, this plan is not that much European, however, it has more to do with dressing up a series of national plans.[7] French economist Jean-Hervé Lorenzi considers this ’European’ plan as “politically interesting” but too weak. Not only because of the lack of coordination between member states, but also because of a lack in definition, and especially its inability to choose between a supply and demand orientation.[8]
A presidency of compromise
Apart from this crisis management, French media welcomed the fact that compromises have been found on many other issues: overcoming the Irish ‘No’, the diplomatic success of the Mediterranean Union, and the energy and climate package. Others tend to balance this overall success, highlighting the lack of concrete solution, and the fact that a number of matters have not progressed at all. According to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, MEP, the French Presidency has failed because the content of the compromises it reached did not level its declared activism[9] Moreover, some observers consider that the European project and institutional balance have undergone many changes. Information Website “Mediapart”, assumes that “with the complicity of the European Commission’s President José Manuel Barroso, Nicolas Sarkozy took the advantage of being head of the EU to unbalance a fragile equilibrium”.[10] Economic daily newspaper “Les Echos” even assumes that the French Presidency has weakened the Commission, which has been relegated to the role of technical assistant to the Council’s presidency.[11]
French public opinion is divided regarding ‘their’ presidency. According to a recent poll, people seem to be generally satisfied: 44 percent consider it ‘rather a success’, and only 18 percent ‘rather a failure’. The main reasons leading to its qualification as successful are: the fact that it has been ‘strong’; its ability to work under pressure and to deal with the financial crisis and different conflicts.[12] But taking a closer look on each particular issue, French public opinion is clearly torn in two groups. Considering the financial crisis question, 39 percent think that the French Presidency was able to propose concrete solutions whereas 40 percent think that it did not. On the Georgian crisis, the results are similar (35 percent consider that concrete solutions have been found, and 35 percent not). On the other hand, only 28 percent think the presidency has led to some progress concerning the Lisbon Treaty (34 percent no), and only 12 percent on the Common Agricultural Policy (53 percent no). A clear political cleavage can be noticed on all theses questions (80 percent of right wing supporters consider the French Presidency as a success, and only 25 percent of left wing supporters – a similar division can be observed on almost all questions). But the most striking figure is the number of people without opinion: altogether, 38 percent of the interviewees. Such results show that one of the main failures of the French Presidency might be the announced reconciliation of the European Union with the French citizens.
Fears surrounding the eurosceptic Czech Presidency
Even though there are some disagreements on the French Presidency’s achievements, the activism of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ability to place the European Union back at the centre of the international scene is unanimously recognised. In this context, the fact that the Czech Presidency might put a stop to the activism that characterised its predecessor is feared by the majority of French observers.[13] Thierry Chopin and Lukas Macek consider this transition as a real test and a high risk sequence for the EU.[14] In this context, the pressure on the Czech Republic is quite high. According to the website “Touteleurope”, dedicated to European affairs, the Czech Republic “will have to level with the French Presidency, which managed to make important progresses on a number of important issues and to deal with unexpected crises, such as the Russo-Georgian conflict”.[15]

All media emphasise the euroscepticism of Vaclav Klaus, the Czech President. According to “Le Figaro”, there is a real risk of the “EU plunging straight back into hibernation”.[16] French daily newspaper also underlines the fact that it is a particularly bad moment to lose the impetus and ambitions triggered by the French semester. According to Christian Lequesne, there is a general lack of confidence in the Czech Presidency that is illustrated by Nicolas Sarkozy’s presence in the Middle East even though a mission of the troika (including Commissar Ferrero-Waldner) has been sent there.[17]
French observers take note of the official top priorities for the Czech Priorities: ‘the three E’ (Economy, Energy, and Europe in the World). On these issues, Daniel Cohn-Bendit expects that the Czech Republic continues what could not be decided under the French Presidency. However, there are more general expectations. According to Christian Lequesne, this Presidency is an opportunity for the Czechs to “relax with history” and realise that Europe has changed since 1939 or 1968.[18]

[1] Le Figaro, 25 December 2008.

[2] Les Echos, 23 December 2008.

[3] Le Monde, 01 January 2009.

[4] Euractiv, 23 December 2008.

[5] Pierre Moscovici, online blog entry, 11 December 2008, available at: http://moscovici.typepad.fr/blognational/2008/12/fin-de-présidence.html (last access: 26 February 2009).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Libération, 25 November 2008.

[8] Le Figaro, 29 September 2008.

[9] Euractiv, 10 December 2008.

[10] Mediapart, 29 December 2008.

[11] Les Echos, 12 December 2008.

[12] Sondage Opinionway, “La présidence française de l’Union Européenne. Bilan”, 12 January 2009, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).

[13] Libération, 02 January 2009.

[14] Le Monde, 01 January 2009.

[15] Présidence tchèque du Conseil de l’Union européenne, Touteleurope.fr, available at:http://www.touteleurope.fr/fr/actions/construction-europeenne/presidence-de-l-union-europeenne.html (last access: 26 February 2009)

[16] Le Figaro, 30 December 2008.

[17] Euractiv, 07 January 2009.

[18] Ibid.