Peter O'Neil, Canwest News Service - PARIS -President Nicolas Sarkozy's declaration of love for Canada -- a Quebec newsmagazine has dubbed him "Sarko
the Canadian" -- is rooted in a 1995 encounter with one of Canada's richest men.
The fiercely ambitious French politician's career was on the wane when he was introduced to Paul Desmarais Sr., the media-shy Montreal-based billionaire famous for befriending a succession of Canadian and foreign leaders.
Mr. Desmarais began inviting Mr. Sarkozy to Canada, where he has been the guest at the spectacular $10-million, 75-square-kilometre Sagard estate where guests can play golf on a private course, fish in one of more than two dozen trout-rich lakes or take part in pheasant-hunting parties.
"Indeed, I love your country. I love Canada's beauty and the warmth and generosity of its people," Mr. Sarkozy, who has visited Canada an estimated 10 to 12 times, wrote in answers to questions posed by Canwest News Service in advance of his official visit to Canada today.
The French President spoke about the roots and impact of his friendship with Mr. Desmarais, 81, at an Elysee Palace ceremony earlier this year.
"If I am the President today, it is thanks in part to the advice, the friendship and the loyalty of Paul Desmarais," Mr. Sarkozy, 53, said while presenting Mr. Desmarais with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour -- France's highest honour, rarely given to foreigners.
Mr. Sarkozy then referred to their 1995 meeting, arranged by mutual friend Albert Frere, a fellow billionaire from Belgium and a major shareholder with Mr. Desmarais in the French energy giant Total SA, which has significant investments in the Alberta oil sands.
A one-time protege of former president Jacques Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy chose during that period to back Prime Minister Edouard Balladur for the French presidency over Mr. Chirac.
The perceived betrayal sent Mr. Sarkozy into the shadows when Mr. Chirac won the presidency that year, though his career was revived when Mr. Chirac won a second term in 2002 and appointed Mr. Sarkozy as his interior minister.
"1995 wasn't a lucky year for me. A man [Mr. Desmarais] invited me to Quebec," Mr. Sarkozy recalled at the Elysee Palace ceremony.
"We walked for many hours in the forest and he said to me, 'You must stick at it, you are going to arrive. We must build a strategy for you'. "
Mr. Sarkozy also said at the ceremony that after 10 days in Sagard he considered himself "a member of the family."
Mr. Desmarais, who has handed over control of his Power Corp. empire to his two sons, also spoke of the friendship with Mr. Sarkozy in a rare interview earlier this year with the French magazine Le Point.
Mr. Desmarais said he invited Mr. Sarkozy onto his personal jet, at Mr. Frere's request, for the flight to Brussels for an annual spring party put on by Mr. Frere in 1995. "He told me he was in politics. I asked him why," recalled Mr. Desmarais, one of the few foreigners invited to Mr. Sarkozy's victory party after the 2007 election.
Because "it is necessary to change things if France is going to be able to confront the challenges of the 21st century," Mr. Desmarais recalled Mr. Sarkozy telling him.
Mr. Desmarais, whose friends and/or business associates have included Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, told Le Point that he "encouraged" Mr. Sarkozy during those private visits to Quebec.
Mr. Desmarais said he remains convinced Mr. Sarkozy is the right man in the Elysee Palace.
"France has problems, there is no doubt. He has good ideas. France needs him."
WHAT THE PRESIDENT OF FRANCE HAS TO SAY
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said a Quebec City summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper today will result in a "decisive impetus" towards an "ambitious" economic partnership agreement between Canada and the European Union. His comments came as both Canada and the EU made public a joint study which predicts that an accord could create $32-billion in new wealth annually by 2014 -- with $13-billion of that total enjoyed by Canada. In a wide-ranging written exchange with Canwest News Service, he also addressed a number of other matters.
On Canada "Indeed, I love your country. I also greatly admire your country and its values, its ability to encompass modernity and change and its ability to turn its tremendous diversity into an asset."
On Quebec "I want to emphasize the following statement: This unique, brotherly relationship that exists between France and Quebec in no way excludes the strong friendship that ties France and Canada. We have lived too long with the idea that a choice must be made between one or the other; that to honour one is to betray the other. It is just the opposite! The special bond that unites France and Quebec is an opportunity, a wonderful asset for the Franco-Canadian friendship as well."
On trade "I am one of the most involved political leaders in favour of an ambitious economic partnership between the EU and Canada. The summit [today] will make it possible for us to bring a decisive impetus to the table regarding this issue. The economic relationship between the EU and Canada has great development potential because the European market is greater than that of the United States."
On Afghanistan "We are not allowed to lose this battle. That is why I decided to reinforce France's military presence and it is why we will stay as long as need be, alongside the Afghan people."
On greenhouse gas emissions and Alberta's oil sands
"France is aware of Canada's particular constraints, namely those in relation to oil sands production, and we defend the principle of 'common but differing responsibilities.' Everyone must make an effort, with greater or lesser constraints, based on their level of development."
Canwest News Service
'Bonne chance' encounter
Canadian billionaire's encouragement revived Sarkozy's political career when he needed it most