Nicolas Sarkozy’s Election and Transatlantic Relations: New Challenges and Opportunities

Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as French president on May 6 provoked an unprecedent wave of optimism and high expectations, both in France and abroad. Indeed, probably for the first time during the Fifth Republic, the election offered a real alternative in the foreign policy visions of the two main candidates: Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, paradoxically claiming a strong “continuity” with former center-right leader Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy, advocating a shift toward human rights and democracy promotion (in Chechnya and Darfur) and a more balanced approach to Israel and the United States. Though he vocally opposed the war in Iraq, which he considered to be a “mistake,” Sarkozy has publicly shown his discomfort with the French government’s harsh rhetoric in the debate leading to the war and believes the threat of using its UN veto was inappropriate.

In Washington in September 2006, he expressed his sympathy and solidarity with victims of 9/11 and called for more “constructive” relations, in which disagreements would be solved by frank and friendly dialogue rather than crisis. While on major issues (e.g., Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear crisis), he will continue France’s policy of cooperation with the U.S., a more conciliatory tone is expected. Sarkozy does not believe that Europe has to build itself up as a counterweight to Washington’s influence nor does he seem to consider such institutions as NATO and the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) to be incompatible.

On Iran, Sarkozy takes a tough line, considering the economic sanctions as effective and supporting broader sanctions in the next resolution. He is convinced that the international community must speak with one voice and be united. In an article in the May issue of Politique Internationale, he said that “the prospect of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable; it would be the beginning of a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region and would be a major threat to Israel and southeastern Europe.... In this perspective, I suggested the creation under UN and AEIA control of a world bank of civil nuclear energy.”

However, on some topics, Sarkozy has not hidden his opposition to U.S. policy: He is especially critical of America’s lack of engagement on climate change, an issue he cares about deeply and mentioned in his acceptance speech. (“France will lead the world on the environment.”) He has made opposition to Turkey’s entry into the EU one of his strongest political points and is likely to be skeptical toward attempts to make NATO a global alliance of democracies. Yet, once again, he does not seem intent on criticizing the U.S. frontally but rather on finding common ground.

Sarkozy’s foreign policy nominees seem to confirm the previous analysis. He surprisingly appointed the popular Socialist figure Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister. Kouchner, a long-time NGO leader (founder of Doctors without Borders) and human rights activist, is a well-known maverick. He supported the war in Iraq, was the UN-appointed civil administrator in Kosovo, and advocates stronger Western engagement in Darfur. He is regarded as friendly toward Israel and a supporter of close transatlantic relations. Kouchner is, in fact, a very coherent choice because, despite his having been a minister in Socialist governments, his vision on foreign affairs is similar to Sarkozy’s.

The new national security adviser is Jean-David Levitte, a former ambassador to the UN and recently to Washington, whose father was the first director of AJC in France. Very well-appreciated by the U.S. administration, his appointment is a signal to facilitate the transatlantic dialogue.

It is to be noted that Sarkozy’s official spokesman, David Martinon, his diplomatic adviser for the last five years and a close aide, is widely regarded as very friendly to Israel and the United States; and the same can be said of his Middle East and North African adviser, Boris Boillon.

Seizing the Opportunity: America’s Challenge

Sarkozy’s election could encourage a profound shift in transatlantic relations, making Europe a responsible and credible partner to the United States once again. Angela Merkel’s lack of leverage, due to difficulties inherent in the German “grand coalition,” and Gordon Brown’s potentially difficult start (as inheritor to, rather than winner of, the prime ministership, and because of the unpopularity of Tony Blair’s foreign policy) may make Sarkozy’s leadership critical for the future of Europe. In the Mediterranean, for instance, where Sarkozy has decided to lead the effort for a union, loosely modelled on the EU, to promote economic and strategic exchanges, good governance, cooperation, and cultural dialogue, a positive French presence would be a key asset for America.

Such efforts will, however, require much convincing of the public on Sarkozy’s side, as some of his boldest foreign policy stances appear to make a substantial part of the French population uncomfortable. Chirac’s direct challenge to the U.S. before the Iraq war was quite popular, and Sarkozy had been caricatured during the campaign as an “American neoconservative with a French passport.” All in all, most French are attached to the traditional policy of “independence” toward Washington.

Sarkozy will thus have to prove to the French public that his Atlanticist approach is more efficient than direct confrontation and that cultivating closer ties with the U.S. reinforces France’s interests and values rather than the opposite. American leaders will have to be aware of this challenge and to show from the start their willingness to help Sarkozy defend and justify his positions. Washington’s role will be critical.

Thus, if Sarkozy can bring back from Washington ambitious frameworks on issues such as global warming and reduction of carbon emissions—a decisive issue for the French president and people—his leverage will be much stronger on issues like Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where he can lead Europe to a more balanced and useful position. On various issues, Washington would do well to take into consideration France’s positions in order to reinforce Sarkozy vis-à-vis his electorate.

Sarkozy’s victory represents a great chance for both sides of the Atlantic. The French population has shown, by giving Sarkozy a very strong mandate (53 percent, with an historic 85 percent voter turnout), that it was ready for change, and has embraced his call for a “clean break” with France’s political traditions. But resistance will be strong, the temptation to paralysis considerable. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of both France and the United States to face the challenges ahead and work together to rebuild transatlantic relations for the twenty-first century.

June 2007

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