New French President Nicolas Sarkozy outlined his foreign policy goals Aug. 27 before the French ambassadorial corps. The result is a sharp break with the Paris of years past.
Freshman French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the ambassadors of the French diplomatic corps Aug. 27 in his first major foreign policy speech since inauguration, outlining his priorities for the future. Unsurprisingly, the central tenet of his speech was a call for a strong European Union — albeit one that has a clearer idea of its purpose and limitations. But there is no shortage of topics on which Sarkozy has tossed the Gaullist rule book that has guided French foreign policy for the past 50 years straight out the window. Under Gaullism, France sought to establish itself as a power capable of independently impacting the international system. Under this ideology, the United States was perceived as more of a threat than an ally, since overwhelming U.S. power — the favorite French term was "hyperpower" — threatened to make France irrelevant on the global stage. Sarkozy has tossed the Gaullist rule book out the window. Thus, Gaullism often led France to be a stumbling block for U.S. policy, even if that made life somewhat more difficult for Europe in the long run. For example, Gaullism taught that Paris should be close to governments in Iran, Venezuela and Russia, not only in order to seek out opportunities but also to subtly constrain U.S. options. No more. If Sarkozy's speech is any indication — and it certainly holds with the man's political history — France now views the United States less as an overwhelming presence and more as a pillar of the same Western culture of which France is a member. It is a change of mindset with dramatic geopolitical implications. From Washington's point of view, the sophistication, canniness and network of connections that is French diplomacy is still a free agent looking out for its own, but it is a free agent seeking to play off of (and, of course, to profit from) U.S. actions instead of attempting to hamstring them. In his speech, Sarkozy had no shortage of harsh words for entities with which France had — until recently — sought amicable relations. He criticized Russian efforts to use energy policy as a tool of political intimidation and took a similar tone when discussing China's manipulation of its currency policy. He also condemned Hamas for its activities in the West Bank. Under Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, France often sought to ally with Russia, even against other EU states; often spoke of China as an emerging economic ally; and sought to engage Hamas directly, to the exasperation of Washington and Israel. France is still a free agent looking out for its own, but it is a free agent seeking to play off of U.S. actions instead of attempting to hamstring them. Sarkozy's harshest words were reserved for Iran — a state Chirac sought to engage directly for years — calling the issue of Tehran's efforts to gain nuclear weapons the "most pressing for the world order." In contrast, Chirac felt that a nuclear-armed Iran was inevitable and spearheaded efforts to engage Iran, independent of U.S. policy. Absent from Sarkozy's speech was much mention of French prestige efforts of years past in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia; the new policy is to focus on more concrete goals in places closer to home where French power meets with more bang for the buck, such as Algeria and Lebanon. But before one starts to believe France is about to apply for U.S. statehood, bear in mind that France is still France, and it is just as capable as any government of playing to its own interests, especially to the home crowd. A case in point is French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's recent trip to Iraq, during which he offered France's mediation capabilities and criticized the current government. Sarkozy's Paris has no intention of getting involved in the mess now, but an offer of good offices to Washington and Baghdad goes over very well back home, creating the image of a France that is both in tune with the United States and able to act independently. However, that does not mean Sarkozy wants anything to do with Iraq, as was made clear Aug. 27, when Kouchner immediately and without reservation offered an apology to an incensed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for Kouchner's earlier observation that the Iraqi government is "not functional." Kouchner's trip to Baghdad was intended to make political hay, not to get France sucked into the quagmire. The sudden international attention to the trip has to have spooked Paris; the last thing the new administration, which is neck-deep in a domestic economic reform effort, wants is for anyone to actually accept its mediation offer.