France’s presidential election focused little on world affairs. The man who emerged victorious, Nicolas Sarkozy, won his mandate mainly from domestic economic and social considerations (Times of London). Even so, world leaders and the media alike are eyeing Sarkozy as a leader who may, in his own words, bring a “rupture” with the traditional attitudes that for decades have dominated French foreign policy.
Interestingly, virtually none of this analysis can be traced to anything the candidate has promised to do while in office. His victory speech (BBC) contained plenty of promises, to be sure. But on topics where France has asserted itself most forcefully in recent years—Africa, for instance, and Lebanon, and ties with the United States—his rhetoric sounds familiarly Gallic. In an “appeal to our American friends,” Sarkozy asserts “that friendship means accepting that your friends may think differently and that a great nation such as the United States has a duty not to put obstacles in the way of the fight against global warming, but on the contrary to take the lead in this fight.” Hardly the talk of the “French neo-con” his domestic foes portrayed.
In the United States, at least, the optimism that Sarkozy somehow will reinvigorate French foreign policy and vastly improve ties with Washington appears to be based on pundits’ estimates of his character rather than any concrete policy changes in the offing. The conservative New York Sun opines that “the president-elect's default position on international affairs not only isn’t anti-American, but could indeed be called pro-American. Another conservative publication, the National Review, believes Sarkozy’s victory even holds out hope for the GOP in 2008. Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post is more cautious: “Sarkozy is impressed far more by what the United States does at home than by its global aims and presence.” Put another way by The Nation’s John Nichols, don’t expect Sarkozy to turn into the “French poodle” of the America right’s dreams.
Serge Schmemann, editorial-page editor of the International Herald Tribune, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Sarkozy’s effect on U.S. ties likely will be in tone rather than policies, but could nonetheless work to reduce friction. CFR Senior Fellow Charles Kupchan reinforces this view in the Washington Post. In fact, ties between the United States and France have been far deeper and mutually vital than the inventors of “Freedom Fries” ever imagined. The two countries find themselves working closely on many of the most difficult issues of the day. In Africa, where France has rethought its interests of late, the advent of new terrorist movements in North and East Africa has tempered the reaction from Paris to news that the Pentagon is creating a new Africa Command, detailed in this new CFR Backgrounder.
In the Middle East, France led the effort to modernize and expand the mission of the UN force based in southern Lebanon after last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. France has also played a critical role supporting Washington’s efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Like many world leaders, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telephoned his congratulations Monday, and quoted Sarkozy as saying, "I am a friend of Israel and Israel can always rely on my friendship” (Haaretz). Sarkozy still favors pulling French forces out of Afghanistan, and like his predecessor, he believes the Iraq War was an enormous mistake. But then, polls of Americans these days tend to reflect that same view.