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The G-20 summit was the idea of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He says Europe wants to make sure such a crisis never happens again by creating a new world financial system and putting morality back into capitalism. Sarkozy risks butting heads with President Bush, who says the world's capitalist system has worked well for 60 years and shouldn't really be changed. Eleanor Beardsley has this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Just before boarding the plane to Washington, French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it clear what he expected this weekend.
(Soundbite of press conference)
President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through Translator) Strong decisions need to come out of this summit. I'm not trying to be aggressive toward anyone in particular, but this summit can't be for nothing. We are all in the same boat with this grave financial crisis, and we're not out of the storm yet. We need deep, long-term structural changes.
BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy and the Europeans want to change the rules of the financial game. They speak of more regulation, lower corporate salaries, global governance, and binding multilateral measures enforced by international organizations, the kind of talk that makes American free-marketeers shiver. For many years, the more interventionist European models were viewed with disdain in American financial circles, but they may be making a comeback. And some analysts say Europe took the lead and proved more nimble at handling the crisis than America. Claude Weill is head of the French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
Mr. CLAUDE WEILL (Editor, Le Nouvel Observateur): (Through Translator) This crisis appeared as a validation of our systems. People said, you see the horrible failure of the wild, unregulated U.S. capitalist model that was imposed on the rest of the world. Well, we have an alternative model.
BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has won praise for his handling of the financial crisis this fall and his negotiations to broker peace between Russia and Georgia this summer. With France holding the European Union presidency at such a sensitive time, Sarkozy is credited with empowering Europe by bringing it together to speak with one voice on important issues. And while he was once described in the European Press as hyperactive, overbearing, and unpredictable, Sarkozy is now hailed as effective and energetic by his European colleagues, and his poll numbers have shut up in France.
Part of the reason for Sarkozy's success, says Philippe Dessertine, head of Paris' High Finance Institute, was America's lack of leadership during the crisis, which broke under an unpopular, lame-duck president and during a heated presidential race. But now the dynamics have changed, says Dessertine.
Mr. PHILIPPE DESSERTINE (Director, High Finance Institute, Paris): So now there is a real president in the U.S. There is a real man in action. And for everybody - including, of course, Nicolas Sarkozy - it will be important to have such a person in front of them. All the evolution that Sarkozy and all the European community is wanting must be accepted by the new president and the new administration.
BEARDSLEY: Both Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have spoken plainly about America's responsibility for the crisis. Both leaders have stuck their necks out because they realize there will be political benefits at home, says Jacques Regniez, professor at Paris' Political Science Institute.
Professor JACQUES REGNIEZ (Political Science Institute, Paris): This crisis is really a historical turning point. And it's obvious that all the leaders who are ambitious - and Mr. Gordon Brown, like Mr. Sarkozy, have still many years to manage in their political careers - so they are not going to miss such an opportunity to have their names in history books.
BEARDSLEY: Despite Sarkozy's insistence that the summit be substantive, expectations for real results this weekend are low. Real changes may have to wait for the next summit meeting with President Obama. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.