Dramatic Shifts Unlikely In French Foreign Policy

By Marc Perelman

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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Officials in Washington and Jerusalem are hailing the election of conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy to be the next president of France; however, the overt joy at Sarkozy’s election, and the rampant speculation that he will adopt a more pro-Israeli and pro-American foreign policy, could be short-lived.

“Sarkozy’s priorities are of an internal nature,” said Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, which is located in Paris. “He will not make his ‘mandate for change’ more difficult with ‘revolutionary’ foreign policy gestures, in particular toward America. There will be a different style for sure, but France will remain a ‘critical ally.’”

Sarkozy, the man elected to replace fellow Gaullist Jacques Chirac at the Elysees Palace next week, has expressed admiration for the United States, developed a strong record as interior minister on fighting antisemitism and demonstrated an open sympathy for Israel. He even can claim a grandfather who was born Jewish (and later converted to Catholicism).

Yet, France’s electoral campaign was mostly centered on such bread-and-butter issues as crime, unemployment, health care, pensions and education. The focus on people’s immediate concerns helped fuel the record participation at the polls, but it left foreign policy discussions on the backburner. During the two-and-a-half-hour televised debate between Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, the words “United States” and “Israel” were not uttered. The only substantial foreign policy discussion was about Turkey’s admissibility into the European Union, with some quick exchanges on Darfur, China and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Sarkozy has already indicated that re-energizing the European Union will be his foreign policy priority and that issues such as emigration from Africa and global warming will also be high on the agenda.

Another reason to doubt a significant foreign policy shift is Chirac’s legacy. While the outgoing president had lost much of his standing in recent years, his foreign policy was popular — first and foremost his frontal opposition to Washington’s military intervention in Iraq. While Sarkozy has in the past criticized France’s threat to use its veto at the United Nations to prevent a resolution endorsing the Iraq intervention, he has refrained from any clear expression of support for the Bush administration on that issue.

Regarding Israel, Sarkozy has often expressed support for its democratic system and defended its right to protect itself. He has even described Hezbollah as a terrorist group, straying from the official French position that considers the Lebanese Shi’ite group to be a militant organization. But Sarkozy has also defended the rights of the Palestinians, and most observers do not foresee a major shift in France’s relationship with Jerusalem beyond better personal ties between Israeli leaders and the French president.

Some analysts believe that Sarkozy may back away from Chirac’s efforts with Washington to isolate Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Chirac was a personal friend of Hariri’s — after he leaves the Elysees Palace, he will briefly move to a Paris apartment belonging to the slain leader’s family — and some analysts claim that his grief partly explains Paris’s antagonism toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Both Hezbollah and Syria welcomed Sarkozy’s election and called for a more balanced policy.

While official figures are not available, it is widely assumed that Sarkozy garnered a solid majority of the Jewish vote, thus becoming the first president to do so. (Unlike in the United States, where Jews vote in a large proportion for Democrats, France’s 600,000 Jews traditionally cast their ballots in a more diverse fashion.) The main reason for Sarkozy’s popularity is his zero-tolerance policy against the wave of antisemitic incidents over the past few years. His recent outbursts against disenfranchised suburban youths, and his open courting of the far-right electorate, has not eroded his support among Jews — an illustration, some observers say, of the rightward shift of Jews in Europe in recent years.

Sarkozy is also believed to have benefited, in terms of Jewish support, from his oft-repeated admiration for Israel. And while he has presented himself as a secular politician proud of his Catholic heritage, his — and his wife’s — distant Jewish origins also seemed to have helped.

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