15 January 2008

For a long while, French Presidents kept their personal fun to within a specified number of bedrooms. Of course, there were occasional flaps. President Giscard-d'Estaing in younger days hit the milkman while driving back from an intimate night to the Elysee around dawn; President Mitterrand, who maintained a museum curator as a long silent mistress, eventually revealing after a terminal illness what every French journalist knew but waited to publish about his illegitimate daughter Mazarine; President Chirac correctly and publicly loyal to the brainy and classy Bernadette except on casual -- yet often -- occasions when out of sight.

In the age of instant news, new -- and suddenly divorced -- President Nicholas Sarkozy cleverly pre-empted selective media coverage by letting his fun controllably public. First we heard something like "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily." Then Carla, a younger man-eater who had already filleted Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton in one season, among others, sprung to the rescue. Now, every day is the first day of spring and Rome has eternal sunshine even in December. Also, Mamma came along on a visit to Beijing, joyfully -- yet measurably -- chatting to the media about how Chinese leaders enjoyed welcoming elders.

All that is obviously entertaining. But it also reflects an effective shrewdness -- one of many talents that propelled a restless Hungarian Greek French Meteque (as George Moustaki would describe him) to the top of the world.

For in addition to swaying media attention at will, President Sarkozy has revived or re-invented a pleasurable cover for dynamic personal diplomacy. Hardly noticed was the fact that every dip of travel carried a whiff of political activity. His summer holiday in Maine was not limited to refreshing the spirit or gaining the trust of President Bush. A man of practical instincts would certainly wish to widen his networking beyond 2008. The same applied to Dakar, Tripoli or Beijing.

More to the point is his Christmas - New Year holiday in selected Middle East spots from Luxor to Sharm El-Sheikh to Petra. The Presidential hunt of the sun was certainly accompanied by valuable, and -- contrary to the general impression -- discreet valuable contacts. Meetings with President Mubarak, or King Abdallah II on Iraq, Palestinian - Israeli impasse, Lebanon and related issues are obvious. However, what was hardly reported was a coincidental presence in Egypt at the same time as Iranian Chief Negotiator Ali Larijani, who seemed to be sharing a parallel interest in the treasures of Ramses and the shores of the Red Sea, though with less public exposure. If the Iranian or another key Syrian official were spotted by a local reporter, it was not likely to be broadcast beyond the internal radar.

The presence of any Iranian official in Egypt is news. Relations between the two countries have been cut off since the murder of President Sadat; a street in Teheran was named after his killer: Salam Islambouli. There was some sort of a thaw when President Khatemi met President Mubarak in Geneva on the side at a U.N. Information Technology conference. Otherwise, contact between Egyptian and Iranian officials were limited to a necessary minimum. A visit to Cairo by someone at the level of the Security Advisor to Spiritual Leader, the real power in Teheran, indicates some very high level contacts, primarily with the most senior Egyptians and equally with Egypt's senior visitors.

Instead, Egyptian media were entirely welcome to focus on the outgoing British Prime Minister and his young son -- a harmless exercise: good for tourism, very good for Mr. Blair.

The same kind of networking, prodding and evaluation was likely to have taken place before and after a rapturous visit to the pink stones of Petra in Jordan. If the value of discreet diplomacy is being discreet, we'll dutifully oblige.

What we aim to say, in brief, is that using pleasure time as a double for effective problem-solving is a great idea. Provided it actually works.