Sarkozy globetrots as domestic fires smoulder

* After Libya lead role, Sarkozy dashes off to Asia

* Talks economics in China, nuclear rules in Japan

* Globetrotting may not cure dismal domestic rating

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS, March 31 (Reuters) – President Nicolas Sarkozy,
displaying his boundless energy and love of the world stage,
left the controls of his Libya mission this week for a two-day
dash to oversee crisis management in China and Japan.

The globetrotting appears to be doing little if any good to
Sarkozy’s record-low popularity rating at home, raising the risk
that whatever credit he gets internationally does nothing for
his re-election prospects in 2012. [ID:nLDE72T2C4]

At the forefront of world news since he spearheaded the
West’s intervention in Libya, Sarkozy has turned his attention
to global economic woes, opening a G20 monetary seminar in
China, then flying to Japan to be the first foreign leader to
offer sympathy in person for the earthquake/tsunami disaster.

“You are not alone in this crisis. The world is watching you
and the world admires you,” Sarkozy told Japanese Prime Minister
Naoto Kan, hours after laying out his thoughts on monetary
reform to G20 ministers and academics in Nanjing, China.

The intercontinental firefighting is typical of Sarkozy, who
won plaudits early in his term for guiding Europe through
economic crisis as EU president and for brokering a ceasefire
between Georgia and Russia in 2008.

Today, however, the foreign sorties risk leaving troubles
untended on the homefront, where voters are punishing him for
stubborn unemployment and price rises and where cracks have
appeared in his UMP party. [nLDE72S1K5]

“He has a temperament that makes him want to run to put out
fires wherever he sees them. It’s an impulse he hasn’t managed
to get under control,” said Jean-Thomas Lesueur, head of the
Institut Thomas More think-tank which follows Sarkozy closely.

“Running off to Japan is all very well but I don’t think it
will win him many points at home. If I was him I would be
worrying about internal affairs,” said Lesueur.

The French, who could vote Sarkozy out in a first round of
the 2012 election according to some recent polls, are mainly in
favour of the coalition air strikes Sarkozy has led in Libya.

But it is unclear whether that will lift his popularity
ratings, languishing around 30 percent. His economic policy is
ill-viewed, which may explain why he seized on a surprise drop
in the public deficit on Thursday to defend it. [ID:nLDE72U0K2]

Seeing their president as first to clasp hands with Japanese
officials since the brutal earthquake and tsunami that killed
some 28,000 people and triggered a nuclear disaster may fill the
French with pride — but only briefly.

In Japan, Sarkozy showed he now wants to be at the head of
nuclear safety issues by calling a May G20 meeting to discuss
new global standards, ahead of International Atomic Energy
Agency talks on the same issue in June.

SHOWINESS PUTS OFF SOME

Sarkozy’s decision to open the seminar in Nanjing is
symbolic of how much energy France is putting into trying to get
Chinese backing for its goals as G20 president this year.

Only a hard-fought compromise kept China on board at a G20
meeting in February to agree on indicators to gauge imbalances.

Before his speech in Nanjing, Sarkozy squeezed in a visit to
Beijing where he spoke candidly with President Hu Jintao on
China’s opposition to the intervention in Libya. [ID:nL3E7EU21S]

Sarkozy seized on the Libya crisis to reassert France’s
voice in its former colonial backyard of North Africa after his
mismanagement of revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. [ID:nLDE72K0EK]

His past forays onto the world stage were well received at
home. But with polls placing him behind left-wing and far-right
rivals, global diplomacy may not be the right tack to take.

Indeed many of those who say they dislike Sarkozy say it is
precisely because of his showiness and impulsiveness.

Touchy-feely TV shows, including one where Sarkozy talked to
nine adults about their grievances, have not stopped the rise of
far-right leader Marine Le Pen, suggesting his efforts to mimic
her hard line on immigration have fallen flat.

Analysts say it is time for Sarkozy to prove his mettle on
the domestic front, for example by creating jobs.
[ID:nLDE72T0G5]

“His words no longer mean anything,” said analyst Francois
Miquet-Marty at pollster Viavoice. “When he spoke to the people
on TV last year, he immediately lost four points in the polls.”

Sarkozy risks looking weak, not strong, by running around
the world when his support base is crumbling, Lesueur said. “He
looks a bit lost. He gives the impression of not knowing where
he’s going and not having the right weapons for the battle.”
(Additional reporting by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Brian Love
and Mark Heinrich)

Sarkozy globetrots as domestic fires smoulder