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France, Japan: Debating President Sarkozy's Visit to Japan

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

When French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Japan [fr] on March 31, 2011, less than three weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that caused a nuclear emergency, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is reported to have said:

When it rains, a friend who comes is a true friend

Did Nicolas Sarkozy really come to visit out of friendship alone? This has been a subject of conversation in both Japanese and French citizen media.

Show of support

President Sarkozy is the current G20 president and also the leader of a country which has Europe's largest [fr] nuclear park – and the world's second largest, after the United States. After an official trip to China, where he met with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, to notably speak about nuclear collaboration [fr], he spent a few hours in Tokyo. He expressed his solidarity with the Japanese people in two press conferences; one with Naoto Kan and another for the French community in Japan.

The videos below of the press conferences are from the official presidential Elysée channel on Dailymotion:

Reactions to the visit

French and Japanese web users have widely reacted to this quick visit. Very few comments, from either country, turned out to be positive.

Berlin-based Twitter user @rimsonghi [jp], wrote on the day of the visit:

@rimsonghi: サルコジはスピーチや声明文がすごく上手だとおもうよ。フランス人皆口がうまいってのもあるけど。いつかのスピーチで国が民と労働者を救わないで誰が救うというのだ?って記事を読んだ時、日本の政治家に足りないのはコレだと思ったよ。いい機会だから、日本の政治家サルコジから学べばいいさ

@rimsonghi: I think Sarkozy is very talented in the area of making speeches and statements. As a matter of fact, French people are well-spoken. The other day, I read an article on one of his speeches, and it said: “if the country doesn't save the population and the workers, then who would?” That was when I realized what was missing from the Japanese politicians. It's a good opportunity for them to learn something from Sarkozy.

In France, on the right-wing blog gauliste libre (Free Gaullist) [fr], Laurent Pinsolle hails Sarkozy for his gesture of solidarity, but at the same time nuances his view as he recognizes there may be other intentions behind the speech:

En effet, c’est aussi un geste de solidarité vis-à-vis du Japon. Il est probable que le peuple Japonais apprécie autant la dimension symbolique d’être le premier à le faire, que la dimension plus factuelle qui consiste à montrer que Tokyo est sûre puisqu’il n’hésite pas à y passer. Dans un pays qui vit avec la crainte du nucléaire, ce geste spectaculaire, qu’aucun autre dirigeant n’a fait avant lui, reste un très beau geste, quelles que soient les motivations qui sont derrière.

En revanche, le reste des annonces du président relève beaucoup plus de la communication que du souci de résoudre quoique ce soit. […]

Idem sur les normes nucléaires internationales. Voici encore une grave déclaration de notre président qui ne débouchera sur rien, comme ses annonces sur les parasites fiscaux ou la réforme du capitalisme. De telles normes n’ont aucun intérêt car il est évident qu’elles seraient influencées par les industriels locaux et qu’il sera impossible de produire un alignement par le haut. En outre, on ne voit pas comment elles pourraient être mises en place et surtout contrôlées.

Indeed, it is also a solidarity gesture towards Japan. It is possible that the Japanese people appreciate [fr] the symbolic dimension that he was the first one to act as well as the factual dimension which consists of showing that Tokyo is safe since he doesn't hesitate to visit it. In a country living in the fear of nuclear power, this spectacular gesture, that no other leader has done before him, remains a very nice gesture, no matter what the motivations behind it are.

On the other hand, the rest of the president's announcements were more geared towards communication rather than a concern to resolve anything [fr]. […]

Same goes for the international nuclear standards [fr]. Here is yet another serious declaration from our president that will lead to nothing, just like his previous announcements on fiscal parasites or the reform of capitalism. Such standards have no benefit since it is evident that they would be influenced by the local industrials and that it would be impossible to have a top driven alignment. Furthermore, it is not clear how these standards would be implemented or especially how they would be monitored.

In Japan, there have been questions as to the legitimacy of Sarkozy's visit. Japanese Twitter user @tele1962 [jp] writes on April 3:

@tele1962: サルコジさんがいち早く日本を訪問したことを本気で有り難いと評価している人がいるようですが、フランスのエネルギーがどれだけ原子力に頼っているか、サルコジさんがどんな政治信条と支持基盤の持ち主かを見極めて冷静に判断しないといけませんよね。

@tele1962: It seems that some people truly appreciated Sarkozy's quick visit to Japan, but we need to account for the extent on which France depends on nuclear energy, the political credit he [Sarkozy] benefits from in his country and what kind of people support him.

Question of motives

The visit happened shortly after Sarkozy's political party (UMP) underwent an electoral reversal [fr] and experienced a sharp decline in popularity, all less than a year away from the 2012 French presidential election. Regarding the nuclear debate [fr], Germany – France's main European partner – decided to announce a moratorium to extend the nuclear reactors lifetime [fr].

In Japan, Twitter user @BeatlesManiac2 [jp] expressed alarm on April 3 because what he saw in the visit was:

@BeatlesManiac2: 先日、フランスのサルコジ大統領とフランス国営原子力企業の援助を日本の政府が受領した時点で「原発継続」を日本国民に通知したようなものだ。マスコミはこういう点を明らかにする方向で動くべきだ。TVも「バラエティー」ばかりやっているが、これでいいのか?

@BeatlesManiac2: The fact that the Japanese government accepted the support of the French president and of a French firm specialized in nuclear energy [Areva], is appearing to be an announcement to the Japanese advocating continuing the usage of nuclear power. The [Japanese] media should work towards shedding some light on this point. Entertainment programs are ceaselessly broadcasted on television, but is it apt to do so under these circumstances?

In Tokyo meanwhile, @toshi_fujiwara [jp] is worried by foreign industrial groups’ interests in nuclear power and hopes that the Japanese are aware of the stakes (April 4):

@toshi_fujiwara: すでに菅政権がアレバに協力を求め、東電がGEに協力を求め、菅直人がサルコジのトップセールスを受け入れてしまった以上、新たな国際基準を利用して米仏が市場参入して、国際的な圧力で原発政策存続が既定路線となる可能性が高い。だから日本国民の意思表示は、その前になされなければならないのだ。

@toshi_fujiwara: Now that Kan's government has requested Areva's support, and that TEPCO has also requested help from General Electrics and that Naoto Kan has met with Sarkozy's greatest sales reps, it's very likely that the nuclear energy strategy is renewed under international pressure, with the United States and France intervening on the Japanese market, and by adopting new international criteria. This is why the Japanese public opinion needs to manifest itself before any of the above becomes reality.

@taka_paris [jp] wonders what the French opinion is:

@taka_paris: サルコジ本当に迷惑極まりないよー。どうにかして!フランスの世論は原発に関してどう思ってんの?

@taka_paris: Sarkozy is really embarrassing. May someone stop him! What is the French public opinion on nuclear power stations?

On the eve of the visit, this is what Bouloulou thought of the situation on the blog L’Elysée côté jardin (The Elysée, garden side) [fr]:

Les seules choses dont les Japonais ont besoin sont des secours, du matériel, des vivres, et du personnel qualifié pour résoudre le problème de la centrale de Fukushima (sur ce point, le Japon a besoin des meilleurs spécialistes mondiaux). Not’ président ne rentre dans aucune de ces cases, donc il n’a rien à faire au Japon. Au mieux, il imposera des contraintes diplomatiques supplémentaires aux autorités japonaises qui n’en ont pas franchement besoin en ce moment.

The only thing that the Japanese currently need is assistance, equipment, food supplies, and qualified staff to resolve the problem with the Fukushima power station (on this, Japan needs better global specialists). Our president doesn't fit in any of these categories therefore he has no business going to Japan. At best, he will be imposing additional diplomatic constraints on the Japanese authorities who frankly don't need this right now.

For Plume of CIB, on the blog La plume dans l’kawa [fr], Sarkozy's speech was like that of an NCV (Nuclear Centers Vendor):

Sarko est parti vendre du nucléaire à un pays dévasté par le nucléaire ! Tout ça parce qu'Areva doit être prochainement côté en Bourse [le 31 mars 2011]!!! Comme je vous le disais hier, Lauvergeon [Présidente du directoire d’Areva] a fait elle aussi le déplacement, soit disant pour aider les pauvres Japonais complètement dépassés par la catastrophe.

Sarko went to sell nuclear power to a country just devastated by nuclear power! All this because Areva is soon to be quoted on the stock market [on March 31st 2011]!!! As I was telling you yesterday, Lauvergeon [President of Areva board of directors] has also traveled to Japan, supposedly to help the poor Japanese who are completely overtaken by the disaster.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

The author would like to thank Junko Cho for her valuable help!

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