AMONG the epithets used to describe France's president Nicolas Sarkozy “loose cannon” and “unguided missile” are frequently heard. The latter seems particularly appropriate since the latest initiative he has sprung on his surprised EU colleagues is for a standstill on the American proposal to install missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland in deference to Russia's objections to this plan and intention to deploy missiles in Kalingrad, a Russian enclave bordering Poland, in response.

At a meeting with the French president in Nice on Friday President Medvedev of Russia agreed to put his proposal on hold in exchange for a summit meeting on European security next summer. Although the United States is the principal player in this matter, it seems that Sarkozy did not consult the White House in advance; perhaps he hopes that Barack Obama will become involved because the missile project has been one of President Bush's priorities.

The US missile project is highly controversial. Although described as “defensive” against Iran, Russia believes it would easily be used in offence against its military targets. Washington has pressed Poland and the Czech Republic to provide sites for the missiles and yesterday both these countries complained about Nicolas Sarkozy's intervention without first consulting them. Nonetheless many observers believe that peace in Europe would be better served without the American project which is certain to provoke Russian reaction in the long run. A standstill until a security summit next year would be a small price to pay.