[Overseasview]French politics today

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[Overseasview]French politics today

So far, we cannot yet evaluate
with precision the
strategic repercussions of
Nicolas Sarkozy’s decisions to
reintegrate France within
NATO’s military organs and to
strengthen the French military
contingent in Afghanistan by
sending in 700 additional soldiers.
On the other hand, the
consequences for domestic politics
are already known. Such
projects imply the end of what
was known as the French consensus
on foreign policy.
Indeed, all left-wing political
parties have denounced
Sarkozy’s rupture with the diplomatic
heritage of the Fifth
Republic.
Actually, the quarrel concerns
an essential and central
aspect of the French-American
relationship. A left-right divide
on this type of issue, which had
disappeared for a long time, has
re-emerged. Those favoring the
reinforcement of relations with
Washington, a policy that
Sarkozy is currently implementing,
are in the majority.
The left wing opposition
rejects an Atlanticist alignment
and criticizes what it considers a
betrayal of Gaullism.
The situation is ironic, as it
is a complete reversal of the
political configuration of the
1960s. At that time, the Gaullists
in office turned their backs on
NATO and denounced American
hegemony. Socialists and
centrists, who were in those
days in the opposition, castigated
President de Gaulle for
breaking up Atlantic solidarity
and denounced his anti-Americanism.
Regarding NATO, the
Middle East and the country’s
nuclear arms build-up, Francois
Mitterrand and the opposition
at that time acutely criticized de
Gaulle. They were opposed to
the pullback from NATO,
opposed to a French national
nuclear arsenal (preferring an
American nuclear guarantee)
and hostile to the strategic break
with Israel after the Six Day
War.
The change took place at the
end of the 1970s. Left wing
political forces rallied around
the concept of nuclear deterrence
as a guarantee for national
independence and credibility
on strategic issues. It has been
taken for granted since then that
if you could not win elections
on strategic matters, you could
easily lose them.
The social democrats therefore
maintained their distance
from Washington. Mitterrand
was both the first French president
to visit Israel and the first
Western head of state to plead
for the creation of a Palestinian
state in a speech at the Knesset
in 1982.
In the 1980s, all the political
groups represented in Parliament
shared the same perspectives
concerning major diplomatic
issues, even the Communist
Party, until it later broke
with its Socialist counterpart.
We celebrated the French
consensus on defense and foreign
affairs, in part to oppose
past dissensions on these issues
and in contrast to the traditional
French tendency to quarrel on
all political subjects. The violent
European dispute on the Euro
missile issue was also a factor.
There used to be a large consensus
on the doctrine of French
deterrence; on France-NATO
relations (France allied, but not
aligned and always prone to
state its differences with Washington);
on Europe (we have to
make Europe a regional power
contributing to the emergence of
a multipolar world); on North-
South relations (it is necessary
to take into account the political,
strategic and economic aspirations
of Southern countries).
There was also near-unanimous
parliamentary consensus
on the engagement against Iraq
in 1991, as it was identified as
the culprit in trying to annex an
independent state, Kuwait, and
the United Nations Security
Council gave the military operations
the green light.
After the demise of the bipolar
power configuration in the
early ’90s, many geopolitical
and political changes occurred.
Beyond partisan groups,
there were on both sides of the
fence proponents of a so-called
Gaullo-Mitterrandist orientation,
which was a characteristic
of the Fifth Republic and based
on the persistence of a French
claim of specificity in the diplomatic
field.
They opposed those, called
“the Atlantists,” who insisted
on the concept of an occidental
family community and thus recommended
closer relations with
Washington.
But this opposition existed
within each political formation
represented in Parliament,
except in the Communist Party,
in which there was no Atlantist
position, and not between them.
Successive periods of cohabitation
have reinforced this tendency,
which is made of governmental
continuity and of divergences
on strategic matters that
went beyond political parties.
The successive signs of
bridge-building with Washington
as taken by Nicolas Sarkozy
and the strengthening antagonisms
concerning domestic politics
have recreated a visible
political left-right divide on
such issues.
Even the Atlantist wing
inside the Socialist Party is now
criticizing the French reintegration
into NATO.
There is again a division
between right and left on international
issues.
This division is partly tactical,
the opposition must be
against the government, and
partly strategic, is it necessary to
rally around Bush once he is
rejected not only on the international
stage but also in the U.S.?
This gap will widen further if
John McCain is elected in
November.
It is ironical to note the
switch: contrary to the ’60s, the
Gaullists are pro-American and
socialists celebrate national
autonomy.

*The writer is the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.


by Pascal Boniface
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