Diminutive visitor opts for charm offensive on Irish rescue mission

 

Nicolas Sarkozy made a mighty big impression for such a small man - especially when he kissed the Taoiseach, writes Miriam Lord.

THIS RESCUE mission was fraught with danger, but an emergency charm offensive had to be carried out.

It was a swift operation, with a pocket-sized president airlifted in at the request of his hand-wringing hosts and assuming action man duty for the afternoon.

Inside Government Buildings, the natives were nervous. Outside, the natives were restless. At the barricades, the hardcore volunteers of the Lisbon Resistance were downright hostile.

There was to be no traditional Irish welcome for Nicolas Sarkozy when his motorcade screeched into Merrion Street.

Instead, he got a volley of eggs and a placard telling him to "Mind you own business, onion head". The immaculately suited woman from Bord Fáilte drafted in to look after the incoming French looked positively distraught.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, hair flattened into submission, stood on the steps of Government Buildings and waited to greet the man who had flown in to solve The Emergency.

It was a high-risk strategy. Sarkozy, whose alleged words last week undermined the Government's softly softly approach to rescuing their Lisbon Treaty loss, was invited to Dublin to repair the damage. But would the volatile Sarko pour oil on troubled waters, or say something to sink Biffo's recovery plan further into the merde? The gates of Versailles Lite swung open and the President was decanted from a tank of a BMW.

"Aaah, bienvenu," said Brian, as the two men met and necks craned to get a good look at the politician who won a supermodel's heart. Hearty handshakes followed and then they stood, side by side, for the photographs.

Nicolas didn't look that much shorter than his host, although in terms of bulk, he took up a lot less space. His shoes were scrutinised for signs of artificial elevation.

"Bono Boots!" whooped a male journalist in triumph, having studied the president's heels. And indeed, his exquisite shoes had a very discreet wedge in the heel. "That gives him a good two inches." Somehow, that seemed to make the lads, torn between jealousy and admiration, feel a little better.

Sarkozy may be the Sultan of Bruni, but he's still short.

They went inside for a working lunch, although eating may have been difficult in the presence of Dick Roche's bilious green tie.

After the commotion died down in the courtyard, John Gormley cycled in past the limos and people carriers and the motorcycle escort and parked his bicycle under a tree. He didn't lock it.

The Green leader and Minister for the Environment had a 20-minute meeting with Sarkozy before lunch. Twenty minutes, because his spokesman timed every one of them. That's about 15 minutes more than either Enda Kenny or Eamon Gilmore got, although by the time they emerged, they made it sound like they had to tear themselves away from the French president after an age of discussions.

Connemara lamb was on the menu, with a smoked salmon starter. There was no dessert, which will have come as a disappointment to the woman from Tipperary who paraded around outside dressed as Marie Antoinette.

They wouldn't let him eat cake.

A bizarre mix of protest groups had gathered outside. It was a small protest - perhaps they don't do Mondays.

The IFA mustered with six brand new tractors parked at Merrion Square. They were blue and red tractors, in honour of the occasion and did not want to be associated with the egg throwing incident.

"They were imported eggs," sniffed an IFA woman, who had no problem pronouncing Sarkozy, unlike some of her colleagues, who kept mixing up Sarkozy with Sarcoptic, as in mange mite. Whatever he is called, they weren't happy with Mr Sarcopzy.

The Victims of the Legal Profession were up from the Fishermen, who were separated from the farmers by anti-globalisation protesters. The Save Tara people were beside the Merrion Hotel, as was the man with the eggs, who missed the President's car.

Three planes came from France - the president's jet, a back-up jet and one for the journalists. Sarkozy may have small but perfectly formed feet, but his carbon footprint is huge.

Amid fears of a kidnap attempt, the Government had dispatched junior Minister Conor Lenihan to Paris under the guise of attending a conference on integration. However, should anything have happened to the president when he was in Dublin, Conor was to stay in Paris as a goodwill hostage who would be returned in exchange.

Not a good move. We hear Conor couldn't understand why so few French journalists were there to hear him in France. The news was broken that they were all in Dublin.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny emerged after the lunch and spoke badly in French. Because he can. He was very worried about recognizing Irish "sensitivites" and he was happy that Sarkozy appeared to do that.

His thunder, as so regularly happens, was stolen by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who has been milking this situation to such a degree that he should have been standing outside with the delegation from the IFA.

He said he put Sarkozy right about how the Irish felt. Oh, yes. Told him in no uncertain terms. Laid it on the tables. Oh, yes. He put him right. There was to be no rerun of the referendum.

"I had the impression that he did understand that," declared Eamon, adding that they spoke in both French and English.

Finally, the president departed to his country's embassy in Ballsbridge to meet the various parties from the No and Yes camps.

They each had three minutes to speak, which isn't a long time. If the No vote really meant business, they could have pooled their time and set Patricia McKenna on Nicolas, but perhaps that would have been too extreme.

What to do with three minutes? A quick decade of the rosary? (Nothing like a blast of the Joyful Mysteries on a Monday.) Boil an egg? Sing a song or do a little recitation? In the end, we hear all parties stuck to their allotted time - even Dick Roche, who represented Fianna Fáil, which was a little miracle in itself.

The president took off his jacket, to show he meant business, whereupon Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and Independent Deputy Finian McGrath did the same.

It was all very civilized, we hear.

Back to Versailles - the fountain was not working because of The Emergency - for a press conference. Biffo and Sarko did a sideways high-five when they met again, a sort of a high two point five, as if they were going to do an old time waltz.

The protesters didn't bother coming back.

"I do not regret for one second having come over," cooed Nicolas, who was charm personified. You could see he has charisma, and he has a nice smile, mused the ladies. Très distingué.

"Three-minute man," sniffed the lads.

It went swimmingly, until the president protested that he couldn't force the Irish to do anything.

"Have you seen the size of the Irish Taoiseach, talking about shaking up. He's not a man you shake up easily, or shake down for that matter. Do I look as if I've been shaken in any way?" he said, to a sharp intake of breath from the locals.

Right enough, beside the diminutive Sarko, Biffo looked a bit like the Queen of Tonga.

The offensive was working a treat. Our Taoiseach is a "brave, courageous man" and "Ireland is a a warm country with a tradition of hospitality, a great country". Then it was over. But not before Nicolas, who is very touchy-feely, had caressed Brian's hand. The Taoiseach put them behind his back in case it happened again. Then, the French president made a lunge for Biffo and kissed him on both cheeks.

Biffo air-kissed gamely, making a disconcerting sloshing noise, but you could see he was mortified. He'll be the laughing stock of Clara, but at least he can say he puckered up for Ireland.

A French kiss for an Irish Taoiseach on the steps of Government Buildings.

That's Europe for you.

"What to do with three minutes? A quick decade of the rosary? Boil an egg? Sing a song?