French President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in May in part because he attracted a substantial portion of the far right's supporters to his conservative banner. Indeed, the Front National's popular support has fallen from around 15 percent to 10 percent, weakening that party tremendously and strengthening the traditional French right.
Sarkozy succeeded by embracing themes of national identity and immigration. As a result, many regarded his campaign as very right-leaning. In France and across Europe, people expected an extremely conservative government, akin to US President George W. Bush's administration.
This was a mistake. Sarkozy's embrace of the theme that France's national identity has come under threat, which he linked to immigration, is not enough to make him a US-style neo-conservative. He has chosen to demonstrate this most clearly in the field of foreign policy.
Sarkozy formed his government in the knowledge that French foreign policy has long been consensual. So he gave the reins of the key foreign policy arms of the French government to left-wing politicians. Minister for Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner was formerly was a Socialist minister of humanitarian affairs and deputy minister of health.
Another leftist, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, is in charge of European affairs. Jean-Marie Bockel, the Socialist mayor of Mulhouse, is minister for cooperation and relations with the Francophone world. And Socialists have also been brought into other parts of Sarkozy's government. Fadela Amara, the manager of a non-governmental organization that defends women's rights, is a secretary of state for city management.
Sarkozy's second important initiative was to re-energize the European project. After the failure in 2005 of the draft European constitution, it was far from obvious that negotiations that would yield only partial progress in improving the EU's decision-making mechanisms were the right way to proceed.
After all, there was no immediate emergency and everybody would have understood if Sarkozy had waited another two or three years before risking his reputation on reviving the idea of a European constitution.
But Sarkozy took the risk and he succeeded in convincing other European leaders to embrace the "simplified treaty" that he called for.
Of course, the treaty's final text is not yet written, but success does seem possible, which would not only improve the mechanics of the EU, but would also send a signal to Euroskeptics, mainly the British and the Poles. France has not given up its demand for a "political" Europe that is more than merely a single market.
Sarkozy's third initiative came when the head of the IMF suddenly resigned. Typically, that job is given to a European. Sarkozy surprised everyone by offering the position to a French Socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man with real competence who enjoys widespread respect.
Strauss-Kahn's nomination was also an effective strike in terms of French domestic politics, as it promised to weaken the Socialists' opposition. But, more importantly, Sarkozy's choice of Strauss-Kahn is a crucial stand in today's global economic debates. Sarkozy is announcing that he is an economic "regulator," not a global liberal convinced that today's balance of market forces is optimal and thus that no intervention is needed.