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Left vs. Right in France

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: April 20, 2007

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While many points of disagreement separate the politicians vying for France’s presidency, they appear united on one point: The direction of France under President Jacques Chirac must be changed. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s former interior minister who took the highest vote percentage in Sunday’s first round (BBC), has made a point of denigrating his political mentor. “He thinks France is too fragile and resistant to change” (Economist), Sarkozy wrote recently. Both Sarkozy and the woman he’ll face in the final round on May 6 (Electionguide.org), socialist Segolene Royal, want to distance themselves from Chirac as much as possible.

Tony Judt, a leading British scholar on France, suggests Chirac, the last of a generation of leaders to have held power during the Cold War, may be missed (NYT). But whatever his legacy, Chirac’s days in office are numbered. Sunday’s first round set up a a classic final round between right and left. As Jim Hoagland notes in a Washington Post op-ed, the candidates left standing throw around terms like “national identity crisis” and “civil war” quite casually. The winnowing of the field to two sharply different candidates leaves France weighing Sarkozy’s “tough cop” versus Royal’s “mother of the Republic” (Spiegel), with neither providing much in the way of specifics when it comes to domestic or foreign policy issues. Meanwhile, those who supported the centrist protest candidate Francois Bayrou, who polled 18 percent Sunday, now stand to be “the swing votes” (AFP) in the upcoming runoff election.

In the first round, France’s place in the world, so often front-and-center in the rhetoric of the nation’s political elite, gave way to a debate over how much of a place the world (WashPost) (read: immigrants) should have in France.

The insular direction of the campaign leaves foreign observers to guess at where any of the major candidates would lead France. “None of the candidates have been willing to tackle (LAT) the key foreign policy issues of the day,” writes Charles Kupchan, CFR’s senior fellow in European affairs. The two major candidates have indicated very different inclinations on the most sensitive international issues: the future of Europe and relations with the United States, detailed in this Congressional Research Service report. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye believes mutual interests mean “French-American relations are likely to improve no matter which of the three leading candidates prevails.” At the same time, as Kupchan points out in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, the new president “would still confront a foreign policy bureaucracy and a public that remains skeptical of the United States.” This new CFR.org timeline explores the history of U.S.-French relations.

The front-runners both appear to support a less assertive presence for France in Africa. Yet stark differences exist on some issues. Sarkozy has made much of his admiration for aspects of American society. Royal, in contrast, has sounded more Gaullist than her Gaullist rival, allying herself with harsh critiques (Times of London) of U.S. Mideast policy, and advising the British to choose (Telegraph) between Europe and a future as “an American vassal.” “She is instinctively protectionist and virulently anti-globalist; and in true Gaullist spirit, she is no friend of America,” writes the Heritage Foundation’s Sally McNamara. On the other hand, unlike Sarkozy, Royal supports (AP) Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Too much, of course, can be (and has been) made of Franco-American differences. Stanley Hoffman, writing in Foreign Affairs, says personal warmth is overrated “since postwar U.S. and French governments have largely engaged each other through their Western alliance rather than through bilateral channels.”

 

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