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The New French Connection

Marie-Josée Kravis

At long last the United States has a friend in the Élysée Palace. In his victory speech, newly elected French President Nicholas Sarkozy assured Americans that they could “count on France.”

This is in sharp contrast to former President Jacques Chirac’s repeated attempts to undermine U.S. policy. Indeed, during his election campaign — and despite disapproval at home — Mr. Sarkozy came to Washington and deplored the “arrogance” of the French veto threat that preceded the Iraq war. Next week President Bush will meet Mr. Sarkozy at the annual G-8 summit in Germany, the first face-to-face test of France’s new attitude.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is also a U.S.-friendly champion of human rights who, in the name of humanitarian intervention, had supported regime change in Iraq. Granted, Mr. Kouchner was not an advocate of America’s military strategy in Iraq. But he did oppose a French veto at the U.N. Security Council and campaigned for active interference against the dictator. At the time this was a courageous act.

The most important difference between Messrs. Sarkozy and Chirac may be in their approach to the war on terrorism. Where Mr. Chirac luxuriated in ambiguity and fear of his own Muslim population, Mr. Sarkozy believes the fight against terrorism is a shared global responsibility that cannot be borne exclusively by America. France and her European neighbors must urgently address their own domestic problems of Muslim extremism, and not have their foreign policy held hostage to those internal pressures. How this translates into concrete measures beyond the sharing of intelligence is unclear at this early stage; but Mr. Sarkozy is less likely to allow his foreign-policy positions to be manipulated by France’s Muslim community and perceived threats of terrorist retaliation.

He has advocated highly controversial measures to encourage integration, proposing public financing of mosques and the training of imams to reduce reliance on foreign funders such as Saudi Arabia. He has been a proponent of affirmative action for the Muslim minority and hopes that an invigorated French economy will provide more positive outlets for the discontented and disenfranchised. He has recommended increases in French and European defense spending.

Likewise Mr. Sarkozy is unlikely to revive the idea of Europe as anti-American counterweight, which was favored by Mr. Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He has warned both Iran and Syria that attempts to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S. would be futile. Heated debates will ensue about specific actions towards these countries, but thus far Mr. Sarkozy has sided with the U.S. on the need to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Mr. Sarkozy’s good will affords the U.S. a unique opportunity to encourage a European coalition focused on the need to balance Russian, not American, actions in Europe. The EU-Russian summit held recently in Samara exposed profound tensions between Europe and Russia on issues such as the future of Kosovo, the deployment of antimissile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and energy security. With Mr. Kouchner on the scene, a focus on human rights and phased independence for Kosovo may shed a more critical spotlight on Vladimir Putin’s imperious ways.

How hard will Mr. Kouchner be allowed to push? Recently he expressed support for a proposal made by presidential candidate Ségolène Royal to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics to protest Chinese support for the Sudanese government over Darfur. No doubt realpolitik and the broader context of French-Chinese relations will dampen such fervor. But generally the U.S. will have a more responsive partner in the EU and at the U.N. Security Council on such critical issues as Iran, North Korea, Darfur, Kosovo and human rights in general. On the African front Mr. Sarkozy is also aligned with U.S. interests, calling for reforms and policies based on results rather than on personal friendships with African leaders.

Can the Bush Administration nurture and build upon this good will? Mr. Sarkozy has challenged the U.S. to lead the struggle against global warming, saying “We’re friends but we’re different.” And Mr. Sarkozy proved it by creating a super ministry of the environment and sustainable development. The G-8 summit unfolds while Mr. Sarkozy is fighting for a majority in the Assemblée Nationale. Accommodation from the U.S., however modest, would greatly enhance the relationship.

Mr. Sarkozy’s arrival is an opportunity not to be squandered or trivialized. It could herald a major shift in U.S.-French relations and reinvigorate the broader trans-Atlantic alliance — provided the U.S. has learned that it cannot win every argument and that respect goes a long way, especially for countries that have seen their power and prestige irretrievably decline This time, there will be no haughty and tricky Jacques Chirac to blame if the relationship fails.

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