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The Anti-Chirac Elections

Kenneth R. Weinstein

There aren’t that many certainties emerging from the French presidential campaign, but a coming change in foreign policy might well be one of them.

First things first: The initial round of the election, set for April 22, is becoming as uncertain as it is confusing. French pundits, pollsters and spin doctors are quickly trying to adapt to the sudden rise of Franois Bayrou, a smooth-talking centrist who has focused his campaign on denouncing what he sees as a bipolar French political system, divided between Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement and Segolene Royal’s Socialist Party. As Sarkozy’s and Royal’s campaigns appear to lose steam, Bayrou has emerged from obscurity to trailing just behind the two frontrunners in recent polls. There is even speculation that he might push the Socialists into third place — and out of the running for the second round.

In this context, any prediction about foreign policy might seem premature. But we can safely say that whoever is elected president in the second round on May 6 will face international challenges and choices that will require readjusting some of the mainstays of French foreign policy for nearly the past half-century. Ever since the presidency of Charles De Gaulle (1958-1969) France has maintained an attitude of independence from the United States, emerging as the leading voice for a European political and military power free from American influence, if not serving as a “counterweight” to American policy. France’s independent foreign policy reached its zenith in 2003 when French diplomats built a coalition (including Germany, China, Russia and Syria) to oppose the U.S. led war in Iraq. This same policy led Paris to affirm its presence in the Arab world and Africa, emphasizing shared historical links from France’s colonial past, and relying primarily on personal relations with leaders whose devotion to human rights has been less than stalwart. Yet these policies have encountered some real obstacles under President Jacques Chirac, and are gradually revealing their limits. The country is suffering from an anemic economy the consequence of a “social model” that fails to maximize employment opportunities. Together with its growing identity crisis, stemming from an inability to integrate Muslim youths, expressed spectacularly in the 2005 suburban riots, French ambitions are increasingly out of touch with their capacity.

Paris’s leadership of the European Union came under question after French voters decisively rejected the EU constitution two years ago, and relations with Great Britain and the leading nations of Eastern Europe have not yet fully recovered from the divisions over Iraq.

Beyond Europe, France’s foreign policy has also suffered from internal changes in countries that it formerly considered to be part of its natural sphere of influence. A failed military intervention in the Ivory Coast, and disastrous efforts to marginalize President Laurent Gbagbo, epitomized the decline of French influence in Africa. In the Middle East, the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri — a close personal friend of President Chirac’s — showed just how tenuous was France’s decades-old “Arab policy.” France had prided itself on being the protector of its former colony, and especially of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community; but Chirac’s initial decision to send only 200 troops for UN peacekeeping operations after last summer’s Lebanon War revealed the hollowness of France’s stake. Lebanon’s swift decision to turn to Italy to lead the international force came as a shock to French diplomats. More recently, Chirac’s failed attempt to negotiate a deal with Iran over the nuclear issue has been met in Paris and the rest of Europe with consternation.

France’s next president will have to refresh the nation’s leadership in Europe, as well as its partnerships around the world, and demonstrate his or her interest and determination on such challenges as Iran’s nuclear program. This means a renewed pragmatism without the ideological and rhetorical heat of the Chirac years. Accordingly, candidates would be well advised to draw some lessons from the foreign policy of Franois Mitterrand in the 1980s. A Socialist president who put Communists in his first cabinet in 1981, Mitterrand was no Cold Warrior. His strong and reasonable sense of French interests made him a reliable American ally on key issues such as the Euromissile crisis of the mid-1980s and the first Gulf War. Despite wide philosophical differences with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Mitterrand practiced a caution that Chirac and his flamboyant Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, have been too happy to brush aside.

Personality will make a difference. Nicolas Sarkozy has stated clearly that he does not share the ideological anti-Americanism common among French elites. He took considerable political risk last fall by meeting with President Bush in Washington to proclaim his friendship with the United States. While Francois Bayrou remains a mystery on American affairs, Segolene Royal is squarely in the camp of the European left. Last December, in a visit to Lebanon, she expressed her agreement with a Hezbollah MP’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy.

In the midst of all the confusion and uncertainty over the April 22nd election, one fact is clear: both France and the United States have every interest in strengthening the Atlantic alliance to meet common global challenges. A new, post-Chirac foreign policy that does not obsessively seek to counterbalance the U.S. can and should provide a solid basis for a new transatlantic friendship.

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