[Overseas View]U-turn in French diplomacy expectedBoth in France and abroad, Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as the new French president fuels hopes and fears about the future of French foreign policy. These contradictory expectations are related to a possible break with the diplomacy of the Fifth Republic of France.
It would be a diplomatic approach closer to the British conception, a strategic pro-American turning point and the end of an active policy with and within the Arab world to the benefit of a strengthened alliance with Israel. For some observers, these options reflect a modern vision of French policy in a globalized world. For others, it is only a return to the diplomacy followed under the Fourth Republic, before de Gaulle’s accession to power.
It would be without doubt a clear and major shift in French foreign policy. Will Nicolas Sarkozy undertake such a U-turn? Real breaks are scarce in state foreign policy, which is often compared to a tanker’s journey: One cannot change course quickly. History, geography, tradition and above all national interest are powerful stamps that are not easy to forget or neglect. Beyond electoral speeches, continuity is usually more likely than radical changes. We must remember that Jacques Chirac, now considered the champion of multilateralism and main opponent to the United States, began his first presidential mandate by trying to reintegrate France into NATO and resuming nuclear tests stopped by Mitterrand. Mitterrand himself, who declared during his presidency, “Deterrence, c’est moi!” (I am deterrence), was opposed to the creation of an atomic arsenal under de Gaulle’s presidency.
During recent months, one witnessed two different attitudes from Nicolas Sarkozy. The first one was before being designated as his party’s candidate. Eager to show a difference with Chirac, he insisted on the necessity of a new foreign policy, seemed happy with his nickname “Sarko the American,” and declared to stunned Arab ambassadors in Paris that his main priority would be the relationship with Israel. Once designated, though, he came back to a more Gaullian posture. For instance, he claimed the disengagement of the Iraqi War reflected the thoughtfulness of the French position. Now that he’s been elected president, he will probably embrace a new dimension even closer to the French tradition. One of his utmost priorities will be to tackle the European construction stopped by the French non to the 2005 referendum. “France is back in Europe,” he stated a few minutes after the presidential results were proclaimed.
To make the break, he will choose the cautious approach of parliamentary ratification of a simplified European treaty, avoiding the risk of a new referendum. But he declared to have in mind the necessity to take into account the people’s voices who see Europe not as protection but as “the Trojan horse of the threats carried out by globalization.” This is a clear appeal to those who had voted “no” to the European Constitutional Treaty.
He also hailed the historical friendship with Americans, but remembered that he is allowed to think differently. He noticeably insisted on the duty of the United States not to be an obstacle to the effort against climate change, which will be France’s main struggle on the international scene. Had Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to move closer to the United States, his room to maneuver would not have been as big. It would not be easy to cooperate with the Bush administration, which is already weakened. He has to wait for the next U.S. president. And history has proven that French efforts in the direction of Washington were not always regarded with enough attention. Who remembers that de Gaulle, in his first days as French president, proposed creating a triumvirate for NATO with London and Washington, which was refused by Eisenhower?
Therefore, the most possible scenario is that France will continue to play its traditional role of ally without being automatically aligned with the United States. And it will make its difference heard whenever necessary and whatever Washington’s position.
By saying that the Mediterranean is the most important challenge, Nicolas Sarkozy seems to recognize the centrality of the issue of relationships between Muslims and the Western world. There is no doubt his own inclination is pro-Israel. He has never been in the Palestinian territories but has made several trips to Israel. In the first leg of the presidential elections, 84 percent of French citizens living in Israel voted for him although they traditionally lean to the left. But the dream of Mediterranean peace without peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains an illusion. Regarding relationships with Arab countries if France deserts the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it is impossible for France to let two unequal protagonists in the conflict deal with it by themselves or to leave the monopoly on the issue to the United States. One could think about it, but reality is stronger: It would be the best way not to reach an agreement. Last but not least, the Palestinian cause is a central issue for all Arab public opinion. Regarding China, human rights will be remembered. But during the presidential campaign, Sarkozy clearly ruled out any threat of an Olympic Games boycott.
Despite their different tempers, the first five French presidents of the Fifth Republic have forged a common diplomatic legacy, each with his personal touch. If some of de Gaulle’s successors have broken with his foreign policy, it is simply because everyone thought that it was in France’s national interest to do so. The sixth president will probably do the same.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface