Page last updated at 08:25 GMT, Sunday, 13 July 2008 09:25 UK

Sarkozy's plan: Showy or astute?

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic correspondent, Jerusalem

French President Nicolas Sarkozy with Lebanese president Michel Sleimane (R) and Syrian President Bachar Al Assad (C) at the Elysee Palace in Paris (12/07/2008)
Some have dismissed Mr Sarkozy's plan as "showy multilateralism"

The inaugural summit of the Union for the Mediterranean is very much the personal initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It represents a bold effort to get France - and indeed Europe as a whole - more involved with North Africa and the Middle East.

But the French president's ambitions may inevitably be circumscribed from the outset.

It is easy to dismiss Mr Sarkozy's grand vision of a Union for the Mediterranean.

Even some of the French newspapers have written off the scheme as a kind of "showy multilateralism" in tune with Mr Sarkozy's showy life-style.

It is true there is not yet much substance to the plan - it is a kind of warming-over of the old Barcelona Process of dialogue between Europe and the Mediterranean initiated by another Gaullist, President Jacques Chirac in 1995.

But it would be wrong to dismiss his successor's efforts.

Astute game

Mr Sarkozy is playing an astute game.

He has seized this opportunity to rehabilitate his Syrian counterpart President Bashar Assad.

Last month Mr Sarkozy spoke before the Israeli parliament as a robust friend of Israel.

He has also strongly condemned Iran's nuclear ambitions.

What it all amounts to is an attempt to re-energise France, and by extension, Europe's role in the Middle East.

The opening to Syria is especially interesting at a time when that country is engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel.

President Sarkozy wants to add France's weight as a facilitator.

But in the end it may amount to little.

What Syria and Iran really want - an end to isolation for example or a security dialogue - they cannot get from France or the Europeans, but only from Washington.

French diplomacy may help to help fill the vacuum of the closing months of the Bush Administration.

But it is the next man in the White House who counts in Middle Eastern diplomacy and not Mr Sarkozy or his Union.

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