S&P finally downgraded France’s credit rating several weeks ago, along with a few other EU Member States. The decision could undeniably cost Sarkozy the reelection in May 2012; many believe Sarkozy is solely responsible for the downgrade. But May 2012 is still far away from a political standpoint. Since his election in 2007, Sarkozy has been a polarizing political figure in France, evidenced by the large variety of nicknames given by the media alone- such as, President Bling-Bling, Sarko l’Américain, and so on. This blog will put Sarkozy’s first and maybe last mandate as the President of France into perspective by assessing his contribution to the construction/safeguarding of the EU (in defense and security questions), advancing French foreign policy, and the buildup of the transatlantic relations.
Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, rose to the highest political sphere quite quickly and unconventionally according to French standards. He began his political life in the mid-1970s in the Municipal Council of Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the richest suburbs of Paris, wherein a large segment of France’s political, economic, industrial and financial elites live. The fact that Sarkozy’s political life began surrounded by the French elite was significant for his political career. The creation of an intellectual support base traditionally takes place in the famous Grandes Ecoles, such as Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), as had been the case for previous French presidents and ministers, and certainly is the case of François Hollande, the Socialist Candidate in 2012. Sarkozy was able to compensate for his schooling with his Neuilly connections. The latest scandal connecting Sarkozy with the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane de Bettencourt, is one example of his powerful network. A paper written by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute recounts some interesting facts about the rise of Sarkozy and his understanding of politics.
Following his election in May 2007, Sarkozy appeared to have radically changed the direction of French foreign policy, especially towards the U.S. Sarkozy’s decision to re-establish ‘cordial’ relations with the U.S., still under the Bush presidency, was in direct rupture with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. The latter opposed his American counterpart, famously in 2003 in regard to the invasion of Iraq. The 2003 transatlantic and European split was real and substantial. European unity was only re-instituted with the approval of the 2003 European Security Strategy, an agreement between EU Member States of a common agenda and united security vision. As per Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, Europe was then divided between Old and New Europe; France being one of the old members considering its opposition to the Iraq war. The tensions between the U.S. and France remained high until the election of Sarkozy. Some talked at the time of ‘Sarko l’Américain,’ as he expressed on many occasion during and after the presidential race his admiration for the American model. However, Justin Vaïsse of Brookings argued that in fact the Americanism of Sarkozy is much more indebted to Hollywood and Elvis Presley rather than an admiration for the American political system.
Transatlantic relations between France and the U.S. can be divided into three periods. First, from 2007 to 2008, the last part of the Bush administration, which I often refer to as the ‘good Bush period,’ was favorable for a rapprochement between the two sides of the pond. But the honeymoon was extremely short. After President Obama’s election, the U.S. administration reoriented foreign policy from Europe to Asia. Obama’s strategic move has significantly affected relations with his European counterparts. The third period began at the G8 summit in Pittsburgh, following the 2008 collapse of the financial system, and is marked by closer relations between Europe and the U.S. regarding the financial crisis and Iran. However, in general, Chirac’s rupture with the U.S. is over-emphasized, as Sarkozy did not radically alter the direction of the French foreign policy. Sarkozy’s decision to fully reintegrate France within the military structures of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a moderate signal of his Atlanticism considering that France had always been an active and core member of the alliance. The debate in France about the ramifications of Sarkozy’s “new” policies was certainly excessive.
France also played a key role during the summer 2008 crisis in Georgia. Following Russia’s brief invasion of Georgia, Sarkozy was instrumental in monitoring Russian relations with the West, and in avoiding a major split between the former Cold War enemies. However in so doing, Sarkozy made some costly decisions and compromises for not only Georgia, but also in the field of international law and human rights. At that time, France held the EU Presidency and was the voice of the EU, undermining Javier Solana’s role. Russian-French relations have historically been good since the late 19th century and remain quite stable. The latest part of this love story was France’s sale of a French Mistral class amphibious assault ship, which invited criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the highest points of Sarkozy’s presidency will remain the gamble taken on Libya. Following a disastrous start to 2011, when France completely undermined the importance of the Arab spring in Tunisia and then Egypt, Sarkozy decided to be proactive in his support of the Libyan rebels fighting Colonel Qaddafi. This miscalculation by the prestigious French diplomatic corps and intelligence services will remain a stain on French foreign policy, and most likely become a cas d’école of diplomatic failure for future generations. Sarkozy did play a crucial role in getting the UN Security Council to agree on UNSC Resolution 1973, which allowed for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Sarkozy was then able to bring the Americans on board and get NATO involved in the war in Libya. The use of NATO was critical for the success of the mission as French and British armies, navies and air forces have been considerably affected by budget cuts. For example, as of today, Britain does not have an aircraft carrier, which seems quite contradictory to its historical strategic culture and heritage as a maritime power. The Libyan mission was a success and will become a template for future military interventions: short, precise, highly technological, multilateral, and quite cheap. However, Sarkozy’s decision to use NATO was a major setback for the EU, which was completely bypassed by London and Paris, as well as discredited. The best example of the CSDP weakness is the fact that EUFOR Libya was created, but never deployed. Thus, HR Ashton remained quiet and irrelevant throughout the various steps of the Libya campaign.
What’s next for 2012? Sarkozy does have a busy schedule until the first round of the presidential election. The year began well for France and Sarkozy, considering the fact that India decided to buy France’s fighter jet, the Rafale, for $20bn, over EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon. The defense contract is an example of Sarkozy’s understanding and mastery of politics. To learn more about this deal, the Financial Times published an outstanding article on the dogfight taking place backstage over the sale of the fighter jet.
In addition to his reelection campaign, several topics need to be discussed, or at least addressed: first, Iran. What role should France play? Is it the time to empower the EEAS, led by Lady Ashton, and take an approach similar to the one EU3+1 implemented in 2003 during Solana’s mandate? Or is it the time to discuss military operation within NATO? What is certain is that Sarkozy will not get a UNSC Resolution as China and Russia are committed to oppose it.
Second, there is the question of the mission in Afghanistan. France has been progressively removing its troops, but has actively contributed to the European Gendarmerie Force (EFG) in charge of training the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. With the U.S.’ announcement to remove troops by 2014, it is certain that the Europeans will soon follow suit. Will the EGF remain or should it come back home as well?
Third, Syria. The violations of international law by the Syrian government are undeniable and some members of the Arab League monitoring team have even expressed their anger and opposition to the Assad regime. Avoiding and sidelining Syria could haunt Sarkozy in the future, the same way the Rwanda genocide has been haunting French political elites for over 15 years, but for different reasons. Sarkozy understands that the UNSC will not agree on a Resolution, but decision must be taken on the matter. Unfortunately, as of today China and Russia continue to favor sovereignty over humanity. Could NATO lead an operation as was done in Kosovo in 1999? Ethically, the Right to Protect initiative approves such a move, but it would violate international law.
Fourth, Turkey. Franco-Turk relations have been at their lowest since the French Assembly’s recent approval of a law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide. Poor bilateral relations with Turkey will ultimately hurt and affect all EU and NATO relations. Turkey could block, as it has done in the past, Berlin Plus type NATO operations. Sarkozy must address the matter with Turkey and find new common ground.
Fifth, the economic crisis has been painful for the Euro-Atlantic community. The Eurozone is far from safe, as the financial and economic environments of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal remain volatile. Sarkozy and his German counterpart Chancellor Merkel, have a lot of work ahead in readjusting (and agreeing on) the rules of the game to reform the Eurozone. Sixth, the British headache. Since Prime Minister Cameron’s gamble back in November, relations between Britain and France have not been pleasant. Positive Franco-Anglo relations are central for the construction of a common EU defense policy, as was the case in the 1998 Saint-Malo Treaty, which created the ESDP, and in the 2010 Defense Treaty. Both actors need one another in order to maintain their active foreign policies and keep the construction of the CSDP going. It will be interesting to see how France and Britain readjust their relations in 2012, either with the reelection of Sarkozy or with the election of Mr. Hollande.
Even though I have not been a supporter of President Sarkozy’s domestic and social policies, and I fundamentally disagree with his leadership and governing style, I have to admit that he has been an interesting international leader. His approach to foreign policy clearly derives from the French Gaullist heritage. I would like to point out that the case of France’s operation in Ivory Coast last April is severely under-studied, and was under-covered by the global media. Some have argued that the Libyan mission was a simple cover-up for the real mission for French interests in Ivory Coast.
I also criticize Sarkozy’s lack of commitment to the construction and strengthening of the EEAS. It is true that Lady Ashton has not been the best representative, and has been unable to establish a common EU vision; however, she was appointed by the 27 Heads of State and Government. Sarkozy was part of the appointing committee, and privileged at that time securing the DG Internal Market to Michel Barnier rather than getting a French HR. Sarkozy’s priorities were set: French influence over the common market, even though the Directors are theoretically not supposed to represent their national government; European defense after.
Until then there is one thing that I can’t wait to see: who will be representing France at the NATO summit in May in Chicago?