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Jan 27, 2009 | 22:25 GMT

5 mins read

France, U.S.: Paris Moves to Seize its Window

Julien Hekimian/WireImage
In a recent telephone conversation, the U.S. and French presidents spoke of the global financial crisis, Afghanistan and shutting down Guantanamo Bay. The phone call comes as France moves to become the United States' key foreign policy partner in Europe, something that would help guarantee France's importance within Europe.
U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed the financial crisis, the situation in Afghanistan and the decision by Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in a Jan. 26 phone conversation. According to an official statement from his office, Sarkozy restated his willingness to help the United States close down Guantanamo and support a renewed U.S. and NATO offensive in Afghanistan. Sarkozy hopes 2009 will be the year when Paris takes the European foreign policy reins by building on his shuttle diplomacy efforts with regard to the Russian-Georgian conflict and the Israeli incursion into Gaza and by profiting from the distraction of other European powers (the United Kingdom, Germany Italy) with domestic issues. In the absence of any concrete institutional ways in which to strengthen the French position in Europe, Sarkozy's plan is to appear as Washington's key partner on foreign policy in Europe — therefore definitively answering America's question of whom to call when it needs to talk to Europe. Sarkozy's May 2007 election brought an end to Gaullist France, a period when France saw itself as a key world power capable of affecting the international system on its own. During the Gaullist era, France therefore often perceived the United States — and particularly U.S. dominance of Europe's foreign and defense policy through NATO — as an inherent competitor threatening to make Paris irrelevant. Under Sarkozy, France has lowered its ambitions globally and enhanced them regionally. Sarkozy wants to make Paris the undisputed leader of Europe, which down the line will allow it to entrench and reaffirm itself as a global world power. Paris sees assuring dominance in Europe as the first step to global relevance, especially given the rise of Germany in stature and power and Berlin's new foreign policy independence. The recent rise of Germany has thus served to bring Paris' focus back to Europe. This means that France is much less inclined to butt heads directly with the Americans on global issues as a knee-jerk reaction, as it did under Gaullist leaders. The strategy now is to become the United States' key ally on the Continent (something the United Kingdom can never do on account of its structural aversion to European unity), thereby assuring that Germany and other possible competitors will not challenge its relevance. At the core of Sarkozy's plans is reintegrating Paris into NATO's command structure. Although a founding member of NATO in 1949, France withdrew from the integrated command structure in 1966 under Charles de Gaulle as it flexed its foreign policy muscles. Now, Sarkozy plans to create a European defense command fully integrated into NATO. Sarkozy is also inclined to help the United States, and Obama personally, with the problem of relocating inmates from within the Guantanamo detention facility. France has already butted heads with the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, on how the European Union should deal with Obama's decision to close the prison. Sarkozy has pushed for a unified EU position on the matter. At an EU foreign ministers meeting on Jan. 26, France, the United Kingdom and Portugal emerged as the only EU member states willing to take in prisoners. Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands were unequivocally opposed, while Germany and the Czech Republic at best remained lukewarm to the prospect. By taking a lead on this issue so early in Obama's term, Paris is sending a clear message to the Obama administration that it has a strong partner on the Continent. Helping the United States in Afghanistan is a different matter. While Sarkozy's office did mention that France reiterated its support for a U.S. surge in Afghanistan, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said Jan. 21 that no French reinforcements would be forthcoming any time soon. France has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan — the fourth-largest contribution behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Changing its stance on reinforcements would go a long way toward helping France establish good relations between Paris and Washington. With Obama in the White House, France has a chance to endear itself to a president committed to the Democratic Party tradition of looking to Europe for support on foreign policy and geopolitical matters. While Sarkozy had a good relationship with former President George W. Bush, this tradition gives France a bigger incentive to act now that a Democrat is in office. Paris also has a window of opportunity due to Germany's and the United Kingdom's preoccupation with internal matters. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces slumping poll numbers and an economic crisis falling squarely on his shoulders. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces general elections in eight months, when her own foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, hopes to unseat her. Sarkozy's plans could come to naught if France's internal situation is likewise destabilized. France has not escaped the effects of the global financial crisis, and the opposition Socialists are beginning to pressure Sarkozy, calling Jan. 27 for a no-confidence vote (which failed) before a general strike called by unions on Jan. 29. While Sarkozy is strong enough in parliament to survive the challenge, any serious destabilization that sees renewed rioting and social unrest on the streets could slam this new French window of opportunity shut.
France, U.S.: Paris Moves to Seize its Window

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