Nicolas Sarkozy's apology tour

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has, in the past, shown little interest in discussing the darker periods of French history. His summed up his attitude while visiting former colony Algeria two years ago, saying:

"Young people on either side of the Mediterranean are looking to the future more than the past and what they want are concrete things. They're not waiting for their leaders to simply drop everything and start mortifying themselves, or to beat their breasts, over the mistakes of the past because, in that case, there'd be lots to do on both sides."

But in the last two weeks there have been some signs that Sarkozy may be tentatively softening his relentlessly forward-facing outlook. Visiting Haiti last week to announce a debt cancellation package, Sarkozy had this to say about France's legacy of slavery, colonialism, and economic dominance over the country:

"Our presence did not leave good memories,'' Sarkozy conceded outside the still-standing French Embassy in downtown Port-au-Prince.

"The wounds of colonization, maybe the worst, [and] the conditions of our separation have some traces that are still alive in Haitian memories.''

Visiting Rwanda today, Sarkozy didn't exactly apologize for France's conduct during the 1994 genocide, but at least took note of his country's faults: 

"What happened here is unacceptable and what happened here forces the international community, including France, to reflect on the mistakes that prevented it from anticipating and stopping this terrible crime."

Asked what he felt those mistakes had been, the president cited a seriously flawed assessment of the situation in Rwanda as the genocide unfolded and a UN-mandated French military intervention that was "too late and undoubtedly too little".

But reflecting a thaw in relations, Sarkozy said he hoped the future would enable the two countries to "turn an extremely painful page" on a past fraught with mutual distrust. "Off the back of all these mistakes … we are going to try to build a bilateral relationship," he said.

Granted, this isn't much -- certainly less than the Rwandans were expecting and much weaker than the apologies Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan have made -- but it's a new style from Sarkozy, whose rhetoric has never exactly been known for its sensitivity. 



The Greece v. Germany row gets deeper

Two weeks ago, European leaders tapped Germany to lead a bailout of Greece. Since then -- sturm und drang and chaos. Germans are infuriated over everything from Greece's hiring of Wall Street firms to hide its debt to the country's retirement age (in Germany, 67, in Greece, 61). In turn, Greeks have accused German papers of racism and western European leaders of paternalism.

Yesterday, a 60,000-person strike shut down Athens and turned violent, Theodoros Pangalos, the deputy prime minister of Greece, brought history into it. In an interview with BBC radio, he invoked the 1941 Nazi invasion of Greece, which caused an estimated 300,000 deaths:

[The Nazis] took away the Greek gold that was at the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back. This is an issue that has to be faced sometime in the future. I don't say they have to give back the money necessarily but they have at least to say "thanks."And they shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.

All in all, I can't see anyone benefiting from this diplomatic low blow. The Greeks don't want German help, and the Germans don't want to have to give it to them. But, the alternative is mass unemployment and emigration, deep cuts to social services, and a prolonged depression. As I understand it, even moderate austerity measures combined with very high taxes on the rich, the Greek populist proposal, simply will not work. And, just as an aside, I'll go ahead and guess that Angela Merkel saying "Thanks for the gold!" would not go down well in Athens at all.

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images