In the run-up to his election as President of France last May, Nicolas Sarkozy held a series of informal sessions with a number of handpicked foreign policy specialists.
Most of the session dealt with the future of France’s relations with the European Union and the United States. One session dealt with Turkey and another with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Palestine-Israel issue and the broader Middle East, however, did not win special sessions. The feeling in foreign policy circles in Paris was that Sarkozy would steer French foreign policy away from its traditional, and often controversial, involvement in Arab and African affairs.
And yet, in its first month in office, Sarkozy’s new administration has been dragged into Arab and African affairs with a vengeance.
Bernard Kouchner, the new Foreign Minister, chose Beirut as the first capital to visit just days after his appointment. There, he re-committed France to a policy of strong support for the Lebanese government and issued strong warnings to Syria not to meddle in its neighbour’s affairs. A week after Sarkozy’s party won a majority in the parliamentary elections, thus confirming its hold on power, Paris played host to Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese Prime Minister with a reception worthy of a head of state.
Siniora was not the only Arab leader to appear in Paris almost as soon as Sarkozy had entered the Elysee Palace. He had been preceded by Ali Abdullah Salih, the Yemeni President who appears to have made quite an impression on the new French leader. According to sources close to Elysee, the Yemeni leader had Sarkozy “riveted” with a detailed account of the terrorist threat that faces the Muslim world and Europe.
Also this week, Sarkozy despatched a senior diplomat to Tehran to sound out the Iranian position firsthand, especially on the issue of the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the UN on the nuclear issue.
Terrorism in the Muslim world and Tehran’s race for nuclear ambitions were not the only issues to force themselves into Sarkozy’s agenda. The new president endorsed Kouchner’s initiative to hold an international conference on the conflict in Darfur. Kouchner, a socialist with a strong record of service for humanitarian causes, had been calling for such a conference since 2004. He had been ignored by the outgoing President Jacques Chirac, a master of cynicism, who had shrugged off the possibility of French intervention in Darfur with a curt “We have no dog in that race!”
Sarkozy, however, immediately endorsed the idea and the conference was arranged in record time. It attracted a cast of major figures, including the United Nations’ Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Although the Sudanese government stayed away, the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was present in a show of support for the French initiative. More importantly, perhaps, China was also represented by a senior diplomat with ministerial rank, asserting that Beijing would do nothing to discomfort the Sudanese government.
It is too early to guess whether or not the Paris conference will help end the tragedy in Darfur. What is certain, however, is that the conference brought the European and American positions closer together. The agreement to form a 28,000-man army of African and non-African peacekeepers under the UN flag provides a framework within which the international community can back its good intentions with force if and when necessary.
Despite its early engagement with issues discussed above, the new Sarkozy administration has not yet given any indication about its future policies towards the Arab countries. Sarkozy’s election programme included a proposal for creating a Euro-Mediterranean framework which would naturally include the Arab states of North Africa, plus Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and, eventually Syria. That idea, however, has never been elaborated upon. Nor has Sarkozy mentioned it in any of his numerous public statements in the past few weeks.
All in all, it is too early to guess what approach Sarkozy might have towards the Arab states. Some of his entourage insist that France has been wrong in assuming that there is an “Arab world” as such and that French interests are better served if Paris dealt with each of the 22 Arab League members separately and on a bilateral basis.
Whatever its eventual shape, Sarkozy’s Middle East policy is sure to be different from that of his predecessors in at least three ways.
First, Sarkozy does not see France as a rival, let alone an adversary, of the United States for influence in the Middle East; If anything, he is likely to seek close cooperation with Washington on a range of issues, especially those linked to fighting terrorism, securing energy supplies, and curbing the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions. It is in that context that Sarkozy’s entourage are studying a proposal for an official visit to Paris by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Sarkozy did not publicly support the war in Iraq but has always made it clear that he did not regret the fall of Saddam Hussein. Kouchner, on the other hand, had campaigned for removing Saddam Hussein from power since 1991. Both men opposed Chirac’s campaign to save Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sarkozy described Chirac’s attitude at the time as “arrogant”. While Sarkozy does not wish to get France involved in the conflict in Iraq, he is certain to have a more positive attitude towards helping new Iraq rebuild its economy and institutions. Major French oil companies hope that with Chirac out of the picture they would be able to return to Iraq and seek a share in developing its huge energy resources.
Secondly, Sarkozy is likely to steer French policy away from its heavy reliance on personal relations with individual leaders in the region. This would do away with the ambiguities that have always characterised France’s relations with most Arab states.
Finally, Sarkozy may adopt at least part of Kouchner’s analysis according to which no foreign policy can succeed unless it is based on a set of values and used as an instrument of achieving reform and durable development.
Right now, Sarkozy projects himself as the man in charge of foreign policy, with Kouchner playing second fiddle. A third player in this game is Jean David Levitt, one of France’s most experienced and respected diplomats whose official title is that of advisor to the president. Whereas Kouchner represents idealism, Levitt has been brought into the configuration to represent Realpolitik. All this could encourage some creative tension in making and implementing policy. But it could also lead to rivalries and factional feuds. What is certain is that French foreign policy under Sarkozy will not be as dull, cynical, and ultimately pointless as it was under Chirac.