Athens eagerly awaits the French president

Friday’s visit to Athens by French President Nicolas Sarkozy will differ from the usual pattern for heads of state in many respects. Although of considerable political interest, the framework for his talks in Athens is not purely so, due to a number of factors, among them Sarkozy’s own personality. While schedules for similar visits are usually finalized weeks in advance, last-minute surprises cannot be ruled out. According to a diplomatic source, the French president makes a habit of taking even his own associates by surprise, even leaving a day earlier, adding more meetings or activities to the program and changing the composition of the delegation accompanying him. So those involved in his Athens trip are making it clear that all arrangements are subject to alteration. Sarkozy is due in the Greek capital early Friday afternoon and will meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. He will address Parliament before returning to Paris the same evening. At the time of writing, Sarkozy was due to come alone, that is, without his wife Carla Bruni. Although nothing can be ruled out, rumors that the French first couple would be spending next weekend on Myconos do not appear to be confirmed. «That may have been the idea originally, but given the domestic situation in France, the strikes and tension, the last thing Sarkozy would want is to have hordes of paparazzi chasing him around Myconos,» said a Foreign Ministry official. Despite other strong rumors, a visit to Thessaloniki, his grandfather’s birthplace, does not appear to be on the cards. «Obviously, as a particularly intelligent person, he wanted to find out who and what would be waiting for him in Thessaloniki and decided not to go,» said a diplomatic source. The formal reason for Sarkozy’s visit, in view of the fact that France assumes the rotating European Union presidency in the second half of this year, is to have a series of meetings with EU member state leaders. He will be going to some of these countries himself, to others he will be sending Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Sources in both the Greek prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry said that Sarkozy wanted to come himself for two reasons: He has cultivated a very good personal relationship with Karamanlis and has established an equally good one that goes back years with Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis. The second reason is what one could call a «pro-Sarkozy» mood in Greece. Particularly after his warm support for Greece’s position on its dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the Bucharest EU summit, the Greek public has held him in high esteem and, apparently, «he likes that,» according to a political source. Essentially of course, the visit has a very serious political agenda, beginning with France’s EU presidency. «Europe got a shock from the Slovenian presidency when many important issues were delayed because of strikes in Slovenia, the first of the new member states to assume the presidency. France will be succeed by another new member, the Czech Republic, so during France’s term, a number of very important issues will have to be dealt with, first and foremost the EU’s adjustment to the post-Lisbon situation, that is carrying out the Reform Treaty. Important institutional changes have to be furthered, including the new format that provides for presidents of the Commission, of Europe, of the Council of Europe, as well as an EU foreign minister. The second issue Sarkozy will be focusing on in Athens is the plan for a Mediterranean Union, which he wants to move ahead with rapidly. At the end of June, he is to invite the EU and Mediterranean heads of state to Paris for the purpose of promoting cooperation among them. Turkey. According to diplomatic sources, although Sarkozy might still be expressing opposition to Turkey’s full membership in the EU, France is expected to continue with the accession process during its presidency, opening up more negotiation chapters. Skopje. Greece is looking forward to more French support on the FYROM issue, which will enter a new phase after the elections in that country. There will be renewed pressure to reach agreement on the name issue and France is a valuable ally, both in managing the issue in NATO as well as in the EU, especially since the question of a date for starting accession talks will be raised once more in the fall and possibly another Greek veto. Cyprus. On the foreign policy front, Sarkozy’s talks in Athens are expected to include the latest developments on the Cyprus issue; France has indicated its intention to take some kind of initiative in the near future. The French president has concluded most of his official visits to other countries to date with an announcement of economic agreements and the signing of contracts. Diplomatic sources say that this is not expected in Athens. The government’s decision to proceed with a new armaments program has not gone unnoticed in Paris and certainly Sarkozy will be discussing the possibility of selling Greece military aircraft and frigates. However, the same sources say the arms procurements issue has not yet reached the decision-making level. As for Sarkozy’s desire to address Parliament, one political source believes he wishes to do so in order to have his name included on the list of foreign leaders who have done so – Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, and be the first foreign leader to speak in the Greek Parliament in the 21st century.