S&P finally downgraded France’s credit rating several weeks ago along with some other EU Member States. Such decision by S&P could undeniably cost Sarkozy’s reelection in May 2012. Many see the downgrade of France’s credit rating as Sarkozy’s sole responsibility. But May 2012 is still very far away from a political standpoint. Since his election in 2007 Sarkozy has been a very polarizing political figure in France as proven by the large variety of nicknames given by the media such as President Bling-Bling, Sarko l’Américain, and so on. This blog will put into perspective Sarkozy’s first and maybe last mandate as French President by assessing his contribution to the construction/safeguard 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 in French standard. He started 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 Mr. Sarkozy’s political life started surrounded by the French elite was considerable for his political career. The creation of an intellectual and support base traditionally takes place in the famous Grandes Ecoles, such as Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), as it has been the case for previous French presidents and ministers, and certainly is the case of François Hollande, the Socialist Candidate. Sarkozy was able to compensate this lack with its Neuilly connections. The latest scandal connecting Sarkozy with the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane de Bettencourt, is one example of his powerful network. A paper produced by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute counts some interesting facts on the rise of Sarkozy and his understanding of politics.
Following his election in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to have changed radically the direction of France’s foreign policy, especially towards the US. Sarkozy’s decision to re-establish ‘cordial’ relations with the US, still under the presidency of Bush, was in direct rupture with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. The latter opposed his American counterpart, President Bush, in 2003 on the hot topic of the invasion of Iraq. The 2003 transatlantic and European split was real and substantial. The European unity was only reinstituted with the approval of the 2003 European Security Strategy, which symbolizes the agreement between EU Member States of a common agenda and united security vision. As per Donald Rumsfeld, US 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 US and France remained high until the election of Sarkozy. Some talked at the time of ‘Sarko l’Américain,’ as he expressed at many occasion during and after the presidential race his admiration for the American model. However, Justin Vaïsse of the Brookings, argued that in fact the Americanism of Sarkozy is much more embedded into Hollywood and Elvis Presley rather than the admiration for the American political system.
The transatlantic relations between France and the US can be divided into three periods. First, from 2007 to 2008, the last part of the Bush administration, which I often refer as the ‘good Bush period,’ was favorable for a rapprochement between the two sides of the pond. Second, after the election of Obama, the honeymoon was extremely short. Very early in his presidency, Obama reoriented the attention of the US foreign policy from Europe to Asia. Such strategic move by Obama has affected the relations with his European counterparts. And the third period was since the G8 summit in Pittsburgh, following the collapse of the financial system in 2008, with closer relations on dealing at the international level with the financial crisis and with Iran. However, in general, the rupture with Chirac was over-emphasized, as Sarkozy did not change that much 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 was always an active and core member of the alliance. The debate in France about such move was certainly excessive.
France was also a key actor during the summer 2008 crisis in Georgia. Following the invasion of Georgia by Russia, Sarkozy played an important role in monitoring Russia-West relations and in limiting a major split between the former Cold War enemies. Sarkozy did play a central role, but made some costly decisions and compromises for not only Georgia, but also the field of international law and human right. 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 the sale by France of a French Mistral class amphibious assault ship, creating criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the highest points of his presidency will remain the gamble on the Libyan campaign. Following a disastrous beginning of the year 2011 with total miscalculations and evaluations of the importance and reality of the Arab spring in Tunisia and then Egypt, Sarkozy decided to be proactive in the support of the rebels in Libya fighting Colonel Qaddafi. The miscalculation by the prestigious French diplomatic corps and intelligence services will remain as a stain 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 the UNSC Resolution 1973 allowing 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 technologized, 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 different steps of the Libyan campaign.
What next for 2012? Sarkozy does have a busy schedule until the first round of the presidential election. The year starts quite well for France and ultimately Sarkozy considering the fact that India decided to buy for $20bn of France fighter jet, Rafale, at the expense of the EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon. Such contract is a true illustration of Sarkozy’s understanding and mastery of politics. The Financial Times published an outstanding article on the dogfight taking place backstage in order to sale the fighter jet. In addition to his reelection campaign, several topics need to be addressed, or at least discussed: first, Iran. What should France do about it? Is it the time to empower the EEAS led-by Lady Ashton and use the similar approach of 2003 EU3+1 implemented 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 will definitely oppose it. Second, the mission in Afghanistan. France has been progressively removing its troops from Afghanistan, but has actively contributed to the European Gendarmerie Force (EFG) in charge of training the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. With the announcement by the US to remove the troops by 2014, the Europeans will soon be following this trend. 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 needs to be taken on the matter. Unfortunately until today China and Russia have favored sovereignty over humanity. Could it be done outside the laws with a NATO-led operation as it was done in 1999 in Kosovo? It would be ethically a right mission embodying the R2P concept, but wrong as it would violate international law. Fourth, Turkey. Franco-Turk relations have been at their lowest since the adoption by the French Assembly of the recent law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide. Poor bilateral relations with Turkey will ultimately hurt and affect the overall 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 still not safe and saved, as the financial and economic situations of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal remain volatile. Sarkozy with his German counterpart, Ms Merkel, have a lot of work in readjusting and agreeing on the rules of the game and reforming the Eurozone. Sixth, the British headache. Since the gamble of Prime Minister Cameron back in November, the relations between Britain and France have not been of the most pleasant. The Franco-Anglo relations are central for the construction of the common EU defense polict as it was the case in the 1998 Saint-Malo Treaty creating 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. 2012 will be interesting to see how France and Britain readjust their relations either with the reelection of Sarkozy; or with the election of Mr. Hollande.
Even though, I have not been a supporter of Mr. Sarkozy’s domestic and social policies as well as 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 is quite in the continuity of French Gaullist heritage. However, the case of the French operation in Ivory Coast, last April, has been completely under-studied and under-covered by global media. Some have argued that the Libyan mission was a simple cover-up for the real mission and French interests, Ivory Coast. I would also criticize his lack of commitment to the construction and strengthening of the EEAS. It is true that Ms. Ashton has not been the best representative as well as 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 the securing of the DG Internal Market to Michel Barnier rather than getting a French HR. Sarkozy’s priorities were set: French’s influence over the common market, even though the Directors are theoretically not supposed to represent their national government; l’Europe de la 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?