Tuesday, May 15, 2007

LONDON. — European politics are suddenly moving forward at a dizzying pace, making room for tectonic changes in transatlantic relations that will, in turn, force Washington to reassess how it looks at its European friends, not-so-friends and foes.

In France after 12 years in the French presidency, Jacques Chirac is bowing out; Nicolas Sarkozy is in. Mr. Sarkozy, 52, is the son of a Hungarian immigrant who fled communism. In Great Britain after 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair will soon be out when he steps down in June. Gordon Brown will be in. And in Berlin, Helmut Kohl, a dinosaur of German politics, has been gone for a while, replaced by Angela Merkel.

Besides the obvious changes, it is also important to point out major political differences among Western Europe’s top leaders; Mr. Chirac was seen as cold to the United States, with whom he never really managed to surmount the strains caused by the Iraq war; Mr. Sarkozy is outwardly warm to Washington. Mr. Blair seemed to follow Mr. Bush blindly, even into the greatest Mesopotamian misadventure; Mr. Brown is likely to question, and then question some more before committing to accepting Mr. Bush’s policies. And in Berlin, Mr. Kohl, who together with Mr. Chirac put up a united front against Washington’s hegemony, was replaced by Gerhard Schroeder. Then he was replaced by Mrs. Merkel, who is far more open to cooperating with Washington.

The irony brought about by these changes is that the countries labeled “old Europe” by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — indicating that they were practically irrelevant as allies in the wars waged by the United States — are back firmly in the U.S. corner. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which, until recently could be counted as Washington’s most trusted ally in Europe — thanks to Mr. Blair’s unfaltering support of George W. Bush — may adopt a different policy after Mr. Blair’s departure from No. 10 Downing Street next month. Mr. Blair was seen to be so adamantly in agreement with Mr. Bush that the British press took to calling him “Bush’s poodle.”

In France, these changes at the top have produced the unthinkable. Who would have imagined just a few months ago that a French leader, no less one emerging from the party that has inherited the political legacy of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, would emerge into the open as being so pro-American? Especially when it was de Gaulle himself who initiated the anti-American mood that prevails in much of France’s society to this day.

In a book just released by Nicolas Sarkozy titled “Testimony: France in the 21st Century” and no doubt timed to coincide with his victory in the May presidential elections, the new French president does not waste time letting the reader know his strong pro-American feelings.

As for the opening chapter in his book, Mr. Sarkozy writes that he has “no intention of apologizing for feeling an affinity with the greatest democracy in the world.” Mr. Sarkozy goes on to say, “I don’t see why my country doesn’t take inspiration from its great ally, rather than constantly trying approaches that have failed both in France and elsewhere.”

His very American outlook on work ethics will undoubtedly send shivers down the spines of many of his fellow citizens. As Mr. Sarkozy says, “the French socialists would have you believe that work is a sort of punishment from which people should try to escape.”

Mr. Sarkozy loves “the value Americans place on work and the desire for excellence that you find everywhere, from CEOs to the most modest workers.” (One may assume by such statements that Mr. Sarkozy has not spent much time in certain department stores in the United States where it has become practically impossible to find a sales clerk, and when you do, they are more often than not students or immigrants making minimum wage and have no knowledge of the business they’re in.)

Indeed, Mr. Bush will find a new friend in Mr. Sarkozy, who comes at an opportune moment, as Mr. Bush will lose his current best friend in Europe, Tony Blair. Gordon Brown, the current chancellor of the exchequer who is due to replace Mr. Blair as prime minister, will not be as easygoing for Washington as Mr. Blair was. Already Mr. Brown has said that “mistakes were committed in Iraq.” And stay tuned because there will most certainly be more of the same from Mr. Brown. Mr. Bush, no doubt will lose an irreplaceable supporter in Mr. Blair. And if the void becomes partially filled by Mr. Sarkozy, the new French president has made it adamantly clear that he is no poodle.

“It goes without saying that this friendship does not prevent either side from making its own assessments and taking independent action,” said Mr. Sarkozy. But it remains to be seen if the Bush administration will learn to adapt to the changes coming from Europe and accept those changes, along with the criticism that comes with these new friendships.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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