[Overseasview]France, Korea: New leaders, new bondThe Korean people have just elected a new president for a single five-year term. French voters picked their own president in May, also for a five-year term. Will the two new presidents work together? Do they have enough common ground to strengthen the Korean-French relationship?
A good personal relationship between the two leaders could impact the relationship between the nations. So it will be interesting to observe if Lee Myung Bak and Nicolas Sarkozy invest time and effort to build their relationship.
Lee Myung Bak has a strong reputation for energetic accomplishment. He has been nicknamed “the bulldozer.”
As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he is also known for being in perpetual motion, even in his gestures, and he is called “speedy Sarkozy.”
Lee came from a poor family background. He worked at several jobs before entering the university. In 1965 he joined Hyundai and contributed to transforming that company into one of the most important Korean conglomerates.
Sarkozy’s family was comfortably wealthy until his father left.
His mother had to take care of her three sons and Sarkozy was confronted with material difficulties. He is one of the few French political leaders not coming from the ENA, or the Ecole Nationale d’Administra-tion, the womb of the French elite.
He has some reluctance toward the traditional French elite (intellectuals and high-ranking civil servants) but is close to top industrialists and celebrities. He is currently having an affair with Carla Bruni, a famous and glamourous French singer.
Lee’s reluctance to appear on TV is in contrast with Sarkozy’s eagerness to be in the spotlight.
Sarkozy is so anxious to be on TV that we speak in France about “the Sarko show.”
Both French and Korean voters made their decisions with economic issues uppermost in mind.
But the situation in the two countries are different.
In France, Lee’s “747” goals would seem like a dream. France has 2-point GNP annual growth and is struggling to remain the No. 5 world economy. Korea, the world’s No. 11 economy, is aiming to climb to 7th.
In both Korea and France, the driving force behind the voter choice was the economy ― housing prices, growing inequality and increased anxiety about purchasing power.
Lee and Sarkozy were perceived as the best choices to stabilize their respective economies and work toward those goals. The programs of the two men have many similarities ― lowering taxes, opening the national market, liberalizing the economy, reducing public expenditures and deregulating labor legislation.
Lee wants to help the conglomerates that were not always on the best of terms with former presidents.
Sarkozy is a close friend of one of the most important French CEOs, Arnaud Lagardere, the CEO of Lagardere Group, a conglomerate that controls the majority of French media and Airbus. Lagardere calls Sarkozy “my brother.”
Another major player in France, Martin Bouygues, controls much of French TV and is a global leader in the construction sector and telecom networks. Bouygues is the godfather of one of Sarkozy’s sons.
On international policy issues, there are also many similarities.
Both Sarkozy and Lee have criticized their predecessor for being too anti-American. Lee would not reverse the Sunshine Policy, but thinks that too many concessions without compensation have been given to North Korea.
Sarkozy thinks that French opposition to the Iraqi war was correct, but that the opposition has been over dramatized. He would prefer a more “low profile” approach. Both presidents want to mend relations with the United States.
But in fact, this will depend largely on who will be the newcomer in the White House in 2009.
In addition, both Lee and Sarkozy want to improve relationships with Russia in order to have guaranteed access to oil and gas.
To conclude, it seems obvious that France and Korea have a large field in which they can cooperate. They must develop their strategic cooperation. In France, Korea’s visibility is partly blocked by Japan and China.
In today’s global economy, however, both nations need each other and should nurture their relationship.
France must not overlook the importance of Korea on the international, economic and political stage.
Both countries want to be allied but nonaligned with the United States. They could have mutual interest in discussing all of these issues.
Greater strategic cooperation can improve both nations.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface