PARIS — On Sunday, the French will elect their president. Strangely, foreign policy has been largely absent, so far, from the campaign. Insiders say this will be the case again tonight, when 20 million viewers will watch Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal engage in their only debate on television.
Both sides have agreed that most voters are chiefly interested in domestic issues: unemployment, rising public debt, immigration, and law and order. But other factors come into play. Many foreign policy issues are seen as too volatile and divisive. On Iran, for instance, hard-liners and appeasers can be found both on the right and the left. The same is true of Europhiles and Euroskeptics.
Both candidates may also fear that some issues may get too personal.
Ms. Royal has been attacked for her lack of experience in foreign policy. And Mr. Sarkozy has been targeted as a “foreigner” — he is the son and grandson of immigrants from Hungary and the Balkans — and as an “agent” of America and Israel. One caricature to be found on the Internet refers to “the infernal triangle: Washington-Tel Aviv-Sarkozy” and features Mr. Sarkozy’s face in the middle of a Star of David.
Discussion about foreign affairs will return, however, shortly after May 6. What can be expected from Mr. Sarkozy or Ms. Royal?
Mr. Sarkozy is the most pro-American political leader France has had for decades. Whereas Gaullists from General de Gaulle to President Chirac have made clear since the 1960s that the “national independence” of France or Europe’s emergence as a “world power” entails resisting “American hegemony,” Mr. Sarkozy has insisted on the common culture and values that bind America to France, or America to Europe. His foreign policy will be closer to Prime Minister Blair’s or Chancellor Merkel’s than to Mr. Chirac’s. The problem is that few of the top people around him share his views in full or have been trained in approaching world affairs in this way.
There is speculation that Mr. Sarkozy will appoint a former Gaullist foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s, Alain Juppé, as foreign minister. Not a bad choice. A dry, cold, no-nonsense man, Mr. Juppé undertook as foreign minister to modernize France’s foreign office, the Quai d’Orsay, and in particular to give younger diplomats a better, less prejudiced, understanding of America.
He also engaged in discreet talks to bring France back into NATO, which he achieved as prime minister in 1976. In 2003, Mr. Juppé was reported to be lukewarm about France’s anti-American stance on Iraq. When he was deprived of his electoral rights for three years due to financial crimes committed as an aide to Mr. Chirac, he moved to Canada as a visiting professor, a highly symbolic indication that he believes in trans-Atlantic links.
On the other hand, Mr. Juppé, who is now mayor of Bordeaux and could be elected speaker of a conservative National Assembly, may not be quite interested in the Foreign Ministry or any other Cabinet position. Other pro-American politicians have been mentioned as Mr. Sarkozy’s foreign minister, from Patrick Devedjian, who is of Armenian descent, to Pierre Lellouche, of Jewish-Tunisian descent. Another likely scenario is that Mr. Sarkozy would select one of the defeated third party candidate François Bayrou’s supporters who have endorsed him for the second ballot.
Ms. Royal was seen last year, when she made her meteoric rise to the Socialist Party’s leadership, as a promising Blairite, even on foreign affairs issues. Her finest hour, in this respect, was her trip to the Middle East last October. She agreed to talk to Hezbollah representatives in Lebanon, but the next day, in Israel, she made a trenchant statement against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, going so far as to question the mullahs’ right even to civilian nuclear facilities.
The only flaw in the picture was her failure to visit America. Apparently, she was reluctant to pay a visit to President Bush, as Mr. Sarkozy did in September. Instead, she made grandiose plans for a “women’s summit” with Hillary Clinton, but the junior senator from New York was not interested.
This year, as the campaigning gathered speed, Ms. Royal has been gradually taken over by old left orthodoxies. She had bitter words about Mr. Sarkozy “shaking hands with Bush.” And she mentioned Jean-Pierre Chevènement as her mentor in foreign affairs, if not as her foreign minister.
Mr. Chevènement, a socialist minister under President Mitterrand and the leader since 1993 of a minuscule party of his own, the Citizens Movement, is arguably the most rabid anti-American and pro-Arab political leader in France. In 1991, he resigned from the Ministry of Defense in order to protest France’s involvement in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 2003, he supported Mr. Chirac’s stance on the second Gulf War. In 2005, he opposed the E.U. constitutional treaty, which Ms. Royal supported.
Some say Ms. Royal’s infatuation with Mr. Chevènement is opportunistic and merely designed to attract the growing Muslim vote. According to a CSA/Cisco poll, 64% of French Muslims backed the socialist candidate on April 22, 19% supported Mr. Bayrou, and only 1% rallied for Mr. Sarkozy.
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