Former French president criticises EU and US support for Ukraine in his latest memoirs
19 August 2023
More than a decade after he left the Élysée presidential palace after one term in office Nicolas Sarkozy is, once again, making political waves in France and abroad.
The former French president’s publishers brought forward the release of his second volume of memoirs, Le Temps des Combats (The Time of Battles), today after an international row erupted over his comments on Russia and Ukraine.
Sarkozy, who said he was leaving politics in 2012, still holds political sway in France, where he has set himself up as a kingmaker to the conservative Les Republicans party for the 2027 presidential election, anointing the interior minister Gérald Darmanin as his preferred candidate.
In an interview to promote the 560-page book last week, Sarkozy defended Vladimir Putin and called for Ukraine to accept the Russian occupation of Crimea and other disputed territory. He also insisted Ukraine should not be allowed to join Nato or the European Union and should remain “neutral” to appease Russia’s fears of being surrounded by “hostile neighbours”.
In an advance copy obtained by the Observer, Sarkozy goes further, describing both sides of the conflict sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “belligerents” and criticising EU and US support of Kyiv. “It is said we are fighting a war against Russia without fighting it. Clearly we are not engaged on the ground, but we are delivering weapons to one of the belligerents,” he writes. “Russia will remain our neighbour whether we like it or not. We must find ways and means to re-establish neighbourly, or at least calmer, relations. “Russia has to renounce all military action against its neighbours … Ukraine must pledge to remain neutral … Nato could at the same time affirm its willingness to respect and take into account Russia’s historic fear of being encircled by unfriendly neighbours.” He described the return of Crimea to Ukraine as “illusory”.
Critics have accused the 68-year-old former president of being a “Kremlin influencer”, pointing out that Sarkozy has long boasted of his friendship with Putin.
Jérôme Poirot, a former intelligence advisor to Sarkozy, said his comments were “shameful” and a rewriting of history. Sarkozy claims France and Germany had helped avoid a third world war by recognising Putin’s “red lines” over national borders and vetoing Ukraine and Georgia joining Nato in April 2008. Poirot said the former president had failed to understand how damaging his talks with the Kremlin had been; four months later, Putin sent tanks into Georgia, and four years later invaded Crimea.
Cécile Vaissié, a historian and professor of Russian and Soviet studies, said: “It’s not for Monsieur Sarkozy, or you or me, to decide what Ukraine should become.”
Sarkozy’s support of Russia is consistent with France’s view of the “special relationship” between Moscow and Paris that emerged at the end of the 1960s under wartime leader Charles de Gaulle – a view still shared by many across the French political spectrum.
Le Temps des Combats covers the period from 2009 – two years after Sarkozy was elected – to shortly before the 2012 presidential election he lost to Socialist François Hollande, and is punctuated with acerbic observations of peers and rivals at home and abroad. Michel Barnier, later France’s Monsieur Brexit, is described as “serious but sometimes lacking in charisma”, and former PM François Fillon as “colder than I thought”, while German chancellor Angela Merkel disliked “debates that were too intellectual … She wanted the solid, the heavy, the consistent, and too bad if it was boring”.
Former British prime minister Gordon Brown is described as “an impassioned and often passionate man in love with everything to do with theory, great principles or intellectual matters”. “He [Brown] was a loyal and effective ally, at least as long as I was able to grasp his reasoning, which sometimes went beyond my capacity … I’d never imagined that it was possible to speak so quickly and so jerkily and with a Scottish accent you could cut with a knife,” he writes.
Boris Johnson was “soon swept away by the same lack of seriousness and lack of convictions that had led him to support the heresy of Brexit out of purely personal calculation”. Barack Obama is described as “quite cold, introverted and only marginally interested in those around him”.
In an interview to promote his book Nicolas Sarkozy called for Ukraine to accept the Russian occupation of its territory.
David Cameron escapes Sarkozy’s withering prose, with the former PM described as: “Young, intelligent, jovial and really very nice. I’ve rarely met a foreign political man with whom I’ve spontaneously wished to become friends with. His courtesy and his absence of ego in his personal relations impressed me.” However, Cameron’s ceding to rightwing elements of the Conservative party, leading to the “long and fatal descent into the hell of Brexit”, was disappointing and a serious mistake, he says.
Sarkozy remains a divisive figure in France. He has faced several accusations of wrongdoing in office, which he has denied, and is currently appealing against two 12-month prison sentences for illegal election campaign funding and attempting to corrupt a judge. He is also due to stand trial on accusations that he received illegal campaign funds from Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan dictator.
Responding to Sarkozy’s Ukraine remarks, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former Estonian president, used even less diplomatic language to describe the former French president. “After his own 2008 Georgia ‘peace plan’, which he himself scuppered a month later to restore the EU-RU cooperation agreement, he’s France’s most mendacious postwar foreign policy president. On Russia, venal as hell. Why take this clown seriously?” Ilves tweeted.
Kim Willsher is an award-winning journalist, writer and foreign correspondent who has reported on major news events of the last 30 years: the Romanian revolution; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union and conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Congo and the Middle East. She is one of the first journalists to have visited North Korea to report undercover on the famine. She was named Reporter of the Year in the UK Press Awards for articles from Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chernobyl. Judges described her journalism as “outstanding” commending the “quality, flair and courage of reports…that brought to life events of world importance by showing how they affected the lives of ordinary people”. Kim now works in France for the Guardian, the Observer and as ‘special correspondent’ for the Los Angeles Times.