by Tomas Valasek
In his first 100 days in the office, Nicolas Sarkozy turned France’s domestic political scene on its head. He trounced and marginalised the far-right National Front in the May presidential elections. In parliamentary elections a few weeks later, he wiped out Francois Bayrou’s bid to form a centrist party. And once firmly installed in the Elysée palace, he emasculated the leading opposition party, the Socialists, by poaching their best minds.
What in the world, one might wonder, will he do to France’s foreign policy when he puts his mind to it?
Well, on Monday we got our first hint. Sarkozy gave a speech to an assembly of French ambassadors from around the world. The presentation was typical Sarkozy. It oozed confidence. The speech showed him prepared. And, in a number of important ways, it showed him willing to depart from policies of Jacques Chirac.
The most interesting part of this speech was about Iran. Before even mentioning the country by name, he notes that France has an obligation to help the rise of emerging states by giving them access to nuclear technology for peaceful use. In saying so, he seems to be pre-emptively addressing Tehran’s accusations of double-standards. But then, when Sarkozy starts talking directly about Iran, he hammers. To France, a nuclear-armed Iran is simply unacceptable. France will support a new round of UN Security Council sanctions (when only last month it was said to be lobbying in New York against it because French companies may be among the most affected). And finally, the coup de grâce: unless Iran respects its obligations it will not escape “the catastrophic alternative: a nuclear-armed Iran or the bombing of Iran”. Sarkozy is effectively laying the blame for possible US intervention at Tehran’s feet. He is making Iran the issue, not the US. He does not condone bombing but suggests that he may not be entirely opposed either. And if it happens, it will be Iran’s fault. This is a significant change from Jacques Chirac’s days.
Washington’s joy at the speech will not be unqualified. Sarkozy is not warm to America. When addressing it directly, he calls for “pragmatic” relations. Sarkozy’s agenda for the French presidency of the EU in 2008 is not particularly US friendly. The emphasis on immigration, energy and environment offers little hope of rapprochement. With the exception of energy these are issues that are either intra-European (immigration) or on which the EU and France do not see eye-to-eye (environment). On NATO, Sarkozy says he wants the alliance to co-operate smoothly on military matters with the EU. But he makes no hint of how to resolve the impasse that effectively keeps the EU and NATO from talking to each other. Worse (from the US perspective) he wants to strengthen the EU’s operational planning capacity, which has been a thorn in the side of both London and Washington.
On the other hand, where Sarkozy talks of issues that matter to the US – China, Iran, the Middle East – he strikes a line similar to Washington’s. That is true not only for Iran but also for the Middle East, Russia and China. Sarkozy comes down stronger on the side of Israel than any other French leader in recent history. He proudly calls himself a friend of Israel. He says peace with Palestine is very important but it will not happen if the Palestinians cannot form a government. Sarkozy called the Hamas takeover of Gaza “the first step toward establishing Islamic radical foothold on Palestine territories” and said that the Palestinian Authority must be rebuilt under its president Mahmoud Abbas.
On Russia and China Sarkozy strikes a realist tone. He ignores their domestic affairs altogether. Their foreign policies come for criticism. Sarkozy chided China for using monetary policy as a power tool, and Russia for using energy as a “brutal” weapon. (Interestingly, nowhere does he raise issues that made his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner famous: the slide toward authoritarian regime in Russia, or violations of freedom of speech in China. In foreign policy, as in everything else, Sarkozy seems determined to run things directly from the Elysée.)
The overall impression Sarkozy leaves is that he is neither anti-American nor pro-American. He does not take cheap shots: although he notes that France was right on Iraq, he does not gloat. He states in the preamble that “the leaders of the past twenty years failed to construct a workable post-Cold war order”. But he is both right and diplomatic in saying so, so America should not take offence. The speech effectively removes America as the defining issue of French foreign policy. France will not view foreign policy as an opportunity to score points at America’s expense; it will judge the world’s problems on their own merits. Where Sarkozy does so, he finds that he has a lot in common with the US. But he will not go out of his way to restore America’s good standing in Europe; the Americans will need to do that work themselves.
Overall this is a very strong presentation. He clearly thought about foreign policy a lot. We have come to associate Sarkozy’s France with exuberant confidence but it bears remembering that only three years ago, the world looked very different through French eyes. The then-Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, also speaking in 2004 to assembled French ambassadors, lamented the decline of France in Europe (because of enlargement of the EU to include pro-US countries). Sarkozy could not have struck a more different note.
Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy & defence at the Centre for European Reform.