President Nicolas Sarkozy on the weight of history on his shoulders when he ruled France from 2007 to 2012.



Andrew Roberts: [00:00:00] Nicolas Sarkozy was President of France between 2007 and 2012. Who taught you history? And a sense of the past, has it played an important part in your life and career?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Would like to say that I've had a magnificent history teacher. Unfortunately, very often at school I felt bored. And I had to educate myself by myself, and I started to be a real student after the baccalaureate. I think that you can say that I have started slowly in life, [00:01:00] but I was not, placing any limits. And I understood very soon when I started in politics when I was 18, that everything always started in the same way. Peoples don't change. The mode of people doesn't change. And I understood that in order to be modern, you have to understand the past.

Andrew Roberts: Fascinating. and I think you're so right about, about human nature. At what moments of your presidency did you most feel the weight of history on your shoulders?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Every [00:02:00] second, every minute, every day. When you are president, there are no small or big decisions. There are no small or big days. The worst travels can come from the smallest decisions. The sense of history, the weight of history, I felt it as soon as I went down the Champs Élysées on the very first day. And I felt it when I left the Élysée Palace on the last day.

Andrew Roberts: At the time of the bicentenary of the Battle of Austerlitz, the French left criticized Napoleon for the sexism of the perceived sexism, sexism of the [00:03:00] Code Napoleon and for crushing the Haitian slave revolt. Is his memory a right versus left issue in France today?

Nicolas Sarkozy: The left always criticizes everybody who has succeeded.

Andrew Roberts: Haha.

Nicolas Sarkozy: And the left has not a very good taste in terms of lessons from history.

What are worth criticisms against Napoleon? Coming from people who admire Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. What criticism is worth against Napoleon?

Coming from people ... sanctify the Commune of Paris, which was a real disgrace who forget that the French Revolution of which they're so proud, finished with the terror of which we would be so ashamed,

Andrew Roberts: And it was Napoleon who. took the mob out of French politics and took the guillotine, essentially that ended the reign of terror. So, should, do ordinary Frenchmen, admire him and revere him?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Napoleon. Is the product of disorder coming from the revolution and the terror. French people, like all peoples around the world need authority, order, leadership and ambition. So, if you ask French people, Napoleon is very much in their pantheon. Unfortunately, it didn't finish well,

Andrew Roberts: That's, that's true enough. your grandfather was a staunch Gaullist, to move from one great Frenchman to another. What is the legacy of Charles de Gaulle the founder of the Fifth Republic in France today?

Nicolas Sarkozy: France is a country. Which is capable of the worst as well as the best. The best, when France is led by, big leaders. Louis XIV, François I, Saint Louis, Charles de Gaulle, Napoléon. The worst, when France is not guided. The worst can come about at that point. Leader France likes great ambitions and great leaders. Doesn't like small ambitions and small leaders. France is royalist because it has killed its own king. France likes, great kings and great leaders because it is more rewarding to kill. In a theoretical sense, a great leader or a great king than a very small one.

Andrew Roberts: Is that why French Presidents always, by the cartoonists get dressed up in Louis the 14th? the grand robes of Louis the 14th, is it an attempt to bring down ordinary leaders?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Undoubtedly, the President of the Republic is the heir of a very royal tradition where the king had all powers. The President doesn't hold all the powers. Royalty, let us say that. Royalty led and leadership to a leadership. Which is not a parliamentary system that our British friends know with a king.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, we see that in America, don't we, because the French pre the [00:08:00] American President, has more power than even King George III, who they revolted against.


Nicolas Sarkozy: And even, I always thought that the United States, who have never had a king, have given themselves royal families. Kennedy. It's a family Bush. .... It is true that Trump has not got much royal, characteristics.

Andrew Roberts: The Clintons came close but didn't quite make it.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Clinton, Bill, Hillary, and their daughter even.

Andrew Roberts: Absolutely.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Obama, for example, the wife was, equally important as the husband.

Andrew Roberts: And she, if she were the Democratic nominee, could have beaten, President Trump in this election.

Nicolas Sarkozy: I do not, meddle with, politics in the US major. But I know Michelle Obama well. And it is certain that she has great leadership, just like Hillary Clinton also had great leadership.

Andrew Roberts: You won the 2007 election against Ségolène Royale of the Socialist Party. which has now virtually disappeared in French politics. How will historians of the future explain this phenomenon?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Because the left wasn't able to renew its speech, its discourse. France is the country in Europe where taxes are highest. Where the distribution of riches is the highest and where the feeling of injustice is also highest. So what is left for the left to say? Raise taxes. It's impossible at the level they are at. And this reminds me a little bit of the period before Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

The marginal charge of taxes was 98% at that point in the UK. And we had, you had to wait until Tony Blair in order to renew completely the thought [00:11:00] process, on the left. The French left doesn't have such a leader

Andrew Roberts: Turning from the left to the hard right. There are hard right governments in Italy and Hungary, and they are strong in Holland, and they are junior members of coalitions, in several ruling coalitions in Europe. the hard right is projected to win more seats than the European People's Party in the coming elections. What can be done about this rise of the hard right, especially amongst the young?

Nicolas Sarkozy: It was a great mistake to imagine that Brexit was an English problem that was a European problem. [00:12:00] European leaders should have paid more attention to the discontent expressed by British people. Because the European model was out of breath. Now, as far as the hard right is concerned, the journalists still call them. Extreme right far right, but they're no longer far right Saying that there's too much immigration is not really, the purview of, the far right It is just common sense. you want to defend the identity of your country is not a notion that belongs only to the far right. It's a question of common sense. So, the discontent from people [00:13:00] on immigration was, negated by the elite. It was silenced. And now, the people of Europe want to be heard. The people of Europe want to make their voices heard. So, we're living in a Europe that has worked quite well over the last 70 years. But it is time to invent a new Europe for the next 70 years. At that point, we'll be able to offer the British a possibility to come back in. And at that point, we will, be able to do both integration and enlargement.

Andrew Roberts: Speaking of integration, you had a strong relationship with Angela Merkel. Today, the Franco German [00:14:00] entente seems under various strains. How important is it for Europe to have a powerful French German entente at its core?

Nicolas Sarkozy: It's absolutely vital. France and Germany went to war every 30 years between Louis XIV and 1945 have witnessed three world wars, not two, three, because the war in 1871 was also a World War. Peoples don't change. And it is thanks to Europe that we have piece between France and Germany we have no choice either we are friends, or we are enemies. [00:15:00] Countries do not move to a different address. And when France and Germany is at war, it's the whole of Europe that is destroyed. That is a vital subject. I've often had disagreements with Mrs. Merkel. But I have never said a word against her publicly. Because the consequences of such public opposition are too serious. We French people, we can, fight with the Italians. That doesn't matter at all, because we love each other. With the Germans. It's not possible but the British, it is more complicated. I always wanted for Britain to stay in Europe. [00:16:00] I've also, I even wanted the first president of Europe to be Tony Blair, British. I admire Britain and I thought that the entente cordiale was very little. I wanted to push it to the friendly entente. I've had a very good working relationship with Tony Blair . With Gordon Brown also, and even with David Cameron. For me, Brexit is a useless divorce.

Andrew Roberts: Many statesmen today are thinking deeply about how to compete with China, but also to contain China. Where do you think we're heading?

Nicolas Sarkozy: I'm not as pessimistic as that. I think it's rather good news that China wants to [00:17:00] play a world role. Because we need China in order to fight against climate change. To bring peace. If we were, Chinese, we would do exactly what they're doing. I add to that, that it is not the Chinese who want to have the first position. It's the Americans Obama, who have decided not to hold the first position. And nature doesn't like void. Furthermore, for me, the great power of tomorrow It's going to be India. Rather than China.

Andrew Roberts: That's certainly true [00:18:00] of demographics. At the moment, and also of course having a democracy helps.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Am I allowed to tell the historian in front of me whom I admire and respect? I admire and respect. It's demography that makes history. It's not history that makes demography.

Andrew Roberts: That would be a good exam question for a university.

Nicolas Sarkozy: For me there is no doubt whatsoever. When you have one and a half billion inhabitants, you are top of the class. The axis of the world has shifted. It has traveled from the west to the east. And why [00:19:00] is that? For one reason on 8 billion inhabitants, the East represents 4 billion. The west less than 800 million. It's done.

Andrew Roberts: You believe it's all over. It's all over by the shouting, as we say, and,

Nicolas Sarkozy: I'm sure. Maybe tomorrow, it will be Africa, who has one billion, four hundred and fifty million, and in thirty years may have two billion, but this won't be the West. If you realize that In 30 years time, Nigeria, alone is going to be more populated than the United States of America, if you think [00:20:00] that the most populated cities in the world. Beijing, Mexico City, have 28 million inhabitants. In 30 years time, Lagos, which is not the capital city of Nigeria, will have 40 million inhabitants.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, the, the average age in Africa is 19, whereas in Italy it is 41, and in Japan it's 47.

Nicolas Sarkozy: China, the average age is going up. That's a Chinese proverb that says, when the wise man shows the moon, the stupid man looks at the finger we are looking at China, but there are other [00:21:00] places to look.

Andrew Roberts: You have said that you think that the Russo Ukrainian war, should end with a ceasefire and negotiation. You yourself negotiated a ceasefire in the Russo Georgian war. What's it like negotiating with Vladimir Putin?

Nicolas Sarkozy: I do not understand why we're telling the Israelis to stop the war. You must stop war immediately because war, has, civilian victims and we tell the Ukrainians, you must carry on and increase war. I've had dozens of conversations with Vladimir Putin, some of them very harsh. In one month, we managed to sort out [00:22:00] the Georgian crisis. The Russian tanks had entered into Georgia. There were 25 kilometers away from Tbilisi, the capital city. After our negotiations, they went away. They withdrew. I believe in diplomacy. I believe in dialogue. But I think that we must reinvent completely the structures of multilateral dialogue. Things cannot go on like this. The permanent members of the Security Council have been appointed at a certain time when the world population was two and a half billion inhabitants. It has increased threefold since then. We must [00:23:00] change the composition. The security council members for the permanent members. There isn't a single African country who is a permanent member. India is not a permanent member. Japan is not a permanent member. There. isn't. single Arab or Muslim country who is a permanent country, not a single Latin American country who is a permanent member. And I think it's dangerous.

Andrew Roberts: It's a, a hangover from the Second World War, of course.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Not really. It's a legacy of the 20th century. For 24 years, we've had already been in the 21st century, and it is high time. We give to the 21st century the multilateral structures it needs.

Andrew Roberts: But if you added [00:24:00] those extra five countries to the security council, would they also have the veto? Each of them?

Nicolas Sarkozy: Absolutely. The Soviet Union had a veto. And it worked.

Andrew Roberts: You mentioned Gaza. In January 2009, you called for a ceasefire in Gaza. But after the 7th of October of last year, can there be any meaningful long-term ceasefire In Gaza, while Hamas still exists as a functioning military force there?

Nicolas Sarkozy: I think there is no other solution than the two-state solution. For the Palestinians, and also for the security of [00:25:00] Israel, but. acknowledging, Palestinian state. must be preceded by a, acknowledgement of the right of Israel to exist, and this has to come from all the tendencies of Palestinian people.

Andrew Roberts: Can you see Hamas agreeing to that?

Nicolas Sarkozy: It doesn't matter.

The Europeans have a special responsibility. Towards the survival of Israel. Why is that? Because the Shoah was perpetrated by the [00:26:00] first civilization in Europe, the Germans. It is not the Arabs that, did the show. It was the Germans. The Europeans in Europe, existence of Israel is the result of the, the Europeans cannot accept. As a putting in danger of the very existence of Israel because the Shoah happened in Europe.

Andrew Roberts: But so can you see a European military force, defending Israel if it was one of two states in, Palestine.

Nicolas Sarkozy: It's a possibility. It can be a kind of a force that, gets in the middle with some Arab countries like the Emiratis, [00:27:00] for example, that, get in between.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you. Now what history book or biography, are you reading at the moment? And you are allowed to mention that brilliant book that your son has written.

Nicolas Sarkozy: I'm very proud of my son. And I think that at his age, I wouldn't have been able to write a book like the one he wrote on the readings of Napoleon. So if you're asking me what historical book am I reading, I'm reading a book on the dark years of the occupation in France, and on the complexity of the, resistance movements among themselves, [00:28:00] between them and the English, British, and it's a fascinating story. piece of history and a very complicated story, and I have a feeling that, the whole truth is not yet known on this episode.

Andrew Roberts: What's the author and the title? Can you remember?

Nicolas Sarkozy: American English also. He's worked a lot on the arrest of Jean Moulin.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, absolutely. I've seen the reviews, they're very good reviews.

Nicolas Sarkozy: It's absolutely fascinating book.

Andrew Roberts: Yeah, about who, who betrayed Jean Moulin and it's still a great debate.

Nicolas Sarkozy: And it's like a thriller. Yeah. And it's very important for me because I have to remove my mind. About [00:29:00] this period of the story of my country.

Andrew Roberts: And the book we mentioned earlier about your son, Louis Sarkozy, which is called Napoleon's Library, the Emperor, his books and their influence on the Napoleonic era. It's an extraordinary, work of history written before, this young man got into his thirties. and I'm talking about Louis, not Napoleon.

Nicolas Sarkozy: It is very strange, and I admire my son, no, not because he's my son, I love because he's my son, I love him, but I admire him because he's young and fascinated by Napoleon. Because he lives in Washington. And he's fascinating from Napoleon, because he speaks fluently American, he lives in America, [00:30:00] but he did not forget any truth in France. And I'm very proud and very happy with that.

Andrew Roberts: The collective noun for historians is a malice. My last, question, Mr. President. What is your favorite what if, your counterfactual history, where history could have gone a different way?

Nicolas Sarkozy: In which period?

Andrew Roberts: Any period you like in history where, the, it went one way, and it could have gone the other. A battle that was lost that could have been won.

Nicolas Sarkozy: The most important thing in life, not in history, is detail. And I like detail. And when I was president, I understood that. Detail is the most important thing. [00:31:00] Look at Napoleon. He loved his wife. He was strong in his leadership. He was weak with his wife. Detail. Look at General de Gaulle. If Paul Reynaud and Mandel went to England before, you would not know the goal.

Andrew Roberts: No, or if they went to Algeria, which of course they should have done. Yeah, absolutely.

Nicolas Sarkozy: And I like detail. And we like to meet the great ordinator of this detail. And for me, I knew that. I call Sarkozy, I live in a building with my mother. Nobody, absolutely nobody knows our family. And I [00:32:00] succeed to become president. Why me? You know success is also unfair than failure.

Andrew Roberts: And it, and to be a master of detail helps more than charisma, more than oratory.

Nicolas Sarkozy: What is charisma? Where did it come? How definite charisma? I don't know.

Andrew Roberts: It's an artificial construct.

Nicolas Sarkozy: And I am not able to explain why. I did politics, the only thing important, I did.

it's even when you explain that you love your wife, or woman. Why do you love this woman? No matter. You love. The only thing important in life, it's not what you think, it's what you do.[00:33:00]

Andrew Roberts: Both of your wives are extremely beautiful and accomplished women, so one can understand why you would fall in love with either of them, frankly. Thank you for emphasizing that. My eyes are very large. President Sarkozy, thank you very much indeed for appearing on Secrets of Statecraft.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you so much for all your kindness. And I apologize for answering to you in English at the end of the interview, but I think for your auditors, it is a proof of my while to congratulate them and to tell them I like English people.

Andrew Roberts: Merci beaucoup. Ha! No, I'm not going to be We're not going to go down that route, I assure you. I think you've got the extent of my French there. [00:34:00]

Thank you, Mr. President. On the next Secrets of Statecraft, my guest will be Con Coughlin, the veteran defense and foreign affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph, since 2006.

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