Sunday's runoff election between Socialist candidate Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy was a historic event, and not solely because it will produce the first French president born after World War II.
If the polls are right, the Union for Popular Movement's Sarkozy will be the next leader of the Republic, which means that France will have a Jewish head for only the second time in its historyâ€¦ almost.
Sarkozy, whose father is Hungarian, has been something of an adopted son here (especially in Netanya) due to his Jewish background: His mother had a Jewish father. Sarko, as his supporters call him, has openly and repeatedly called himself a friend of Israel in good times and in bad. While he remains politically neutral regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has drawn criticism from many for his views and positions on Israel, notably from extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, who said during the Second Lebanon War that while the land of the cedars was under attack, Sarkozy was declaring that he was a supporter of Israel.
When Sarkozy gave his foreign policy address to the international media in early March, he acknowledged the stagnation between Israel and the Palestinians regarding talks, and said Israel must make necessary concessions to permit Palestinians to establish a viable state. But he also said it must be made perfectly clear to the Palestinian Authority that nothing can justify violence. Because of his views on Iran, anti-Semitism and global terrorism, he has been dubbed a no-nonsense politician when it comes to security issues.
In France, Sarkozy is seen by many as an "Atlantist" - someone who has more pro-American views than the average Frenchman feels comfortable with. While Sarkozy has taken some bruises from his political opponents on that front, it has given him a credibility on the international stage, especially in the United Nations Security Council, that his predecessor Jacques Chirac forfeited years ago by pushing forward with France's weapons-for-oil policy with the Arab states. Although France has long-standing ties with countries such as Lebanon and Algeria, Sarkozy is hoping to revolutionize its role from double-dealer to that of moderator and is concerned with only two things in Lebanon - political autonomy and the disarmament of Hizbullah.
Perhaps Sarkozy's most controversial undertaking is his blockage of Turkish membership in the European Union. He believes that if Turkey were admitted, Lebanon and Israel would have to be as well.
In between rounds of the presidential elections, Sarkozy discussed why he believes a two-state solution is in the best interest of Israel, UNIFIL and Hizbullah, the Iranian threat and his general outlook on French and Mediterranean politics in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post's French Edition.
In Europe and elsewhere, you have the image of a man who is more aligned with the Right on issues of security and liberalism, while being pro-Israeli and pro-American, which greatly pleases Franco-Israelis, but to a lesser extent the European Left. Do you feel this is a just portrayal?
It looks like you didn't leave anything out. To begin, there is a complete list of traits and caricatures generally used by those who are not very well-intentioned toward me. This perception is neither accurate nor just. I wanted to be the candidate representing the republican Right, liberated from the Left, to be a rightist based on values - work, authority, the priority of the victim over the aggressor, effort, merit, the rejection of a welfare mentality, [promoting] egalitarianism and building equality by starting from the bottom. That makes me the hard Right?
I worked hard in a ministerial capacity to combat and to curb an insecurity that literally exploded under the leftist government of Lionel Jospin. I got significant results, and I estimate that they will be consolidated in the future by an improvement in the mechanisms which dictate the penal system, and in particular to better fight against the recidivist impulses of minors who repeat their crimes. This makes me a man of security matters?
Economically, I am first and foremost a pragmatist. I believe in free economy. I believe in a market economy. But I also know that the market by itself cannot do everything, and cannot rectify everything on its own either. I believe in political volunteerism when it comes to industrial and technological matters, and I do not regret making the decision to intervene to save [French transportation manufacturer] Alstom, an enterprise which once again became flourishing. This makes me a liberal?
I am viscerally attached to the independence of France and Europe vis- -vis whatever forces there may be, and I deplore that the European Union does not take advantage of its unity, of its realism and autonomy in its economic and commercial relations with the other regions of the world, as it does with foreign policy or defense. I do not see an incompatibility between recognition of the US as a great democracy with which we have many common values and indissoluble historic ties. Moreover, I do not see the incompatibility between the rights of Palestinians to create a viable state and the consideration of the security of the State of Israel as non-negotiable. That makes me an "Atlantist," pro-Israeli and pro-American?
These analogies, at the least, lack the most elementary subtlety. The truth of the matter is that those who say that are anti-Israeli and anti-American themselves. They are trying to denigrate the others.
How do you see future dialogue between the government of France and the Muslim Council?
I was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the CFCM [Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman], which represents the Muslims of France, and its 25 regional branches. Why? Because I prefer the Islam of France to be in keeping with the values and rules of our republic, rather than an Islam that is subjected to foreign influences.
The CFCM gathers together the different Muslim schools of thought and allows for internal dialogue, and of course, also with the help of the public and other components of French society. Definitively, the CFCM is responsible for the construction of mosques, the burial of Muslims and the maintenance of their cemeteries, the handling of religious holidays, the nomination of chaplains in hospitals, schools and prisons, but also the appointment of imams. The objective of the CFCM since its creation in 2003 is for me both positive and encouraging. However, I am convinced that no future government, whichever government it may be, will challenge its existence and its intentions.
Security and immigration are the two fields which you worked on the most while you were interior minister. What do you think of the European directive which includes both an exchange between the various intelligence services in Europe and the harmonization of laws on illegal immigrants?
You are no doubt alluding to the proposed directive concerning the return [to their countries of origin] of immigrants in irregular situations. The European Commission said more cooperation with the procedure to send them back is necessary. This is undeniably a good thing, but on the condition that the European states conserve some leeway to act on their own.
Concerning information sharing by the different intelligence services in Europe, I believe it to be indispensable whether for combating illegal immigration, notably in the way the information system for visas will be conducted in the future, or against the network of organized crime, which prospers by exploiting misery and discrimination. More importantly, I hope the European states can go further in the future with respect to coordinating their policies on immigration, asylum and border control. In my capacity as interior minister, I had the opportunity to submit these kinds of proposals to our partners.
You have declared several times that you would like to revise the secularity laws of 1905 regarding church-state relations. How do you think they should be modified?
There was never a question of me touching the basic principles of the laws of 1905. This law is not a law of prohibition, but a clarification of the relations between the state and the different religions inside it. It is a law of tolerance which assures the liberty and neutrality of the state - in other words the equality of all faiths.
I simply hoped that there would be a reflection on the necessity to take into consideration a new reality - that the Muslim religion, which has become the second religion of France behind Catholicism, was virtually nonexistent in our territory in 1905. I recall that this law was amended 13 times. A report by experts which was given to me last September recommended that I draw up the legislation to give the boroughs the possibility, when properly set up, to aid the cultural investments if necessary.
Without a doubt, if this question merits study, it is because it is not only the faithful of certain religions who recently appeared in our territory who face difficulties in practicing their faith.
I do not think, however, that it would be a good thing to legislate without previously obtaining a very broad consensus. It seems to me that before legislating on these delicate questions, the sanction of a large majority of Frenchmen and of the different cultural communities is indispensable.
You are aware that the question of Lebanon preoccupies us greatly because we are neighboring countries. In Lebanon, European soldiers have conformed to the UN resolution for a multilateral force along the border with Israel. Certain reports from the UN signal the rearmament of Hizbullah. Do you think that the UNIFIL mission must be reworked to be efficient?
UNIFIL 2, which was established by Security Council Resolution 1701 to ensure a durable cease-fire between Israel and the various Lebanese factions, was universally warmly welcomed because France, at the initiative of Jacques Chirac, insisted that it be given a clear and strong mandate with predefined rules of engagement.
For the most part, the balance in the region is still fragile. The disarmament of the militias, in particular, which is fundamental for stability, must remain a major preoccupation for the Lebanese government. It is up to UNIFIL 2 to gather the arms caches left by the militias and to prevent the rearmament of some of them to ensure true control of the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Hopefully the Lebanese political process can restart, the Lebanese can retake their destiny into their own hands and find the path toward internal dialogue. Turning the militias' arms caches over to the legitimate Lebanese authorities would be the best guarantee of a return of a durable peace.
What do you think about the 2002 Saudi peace plan and, more importantly, the return of refugees as an obligatory condition?
As you know, since 2002 France has supported the Saudi initiative, as it has supported the efforts of all those who have searched for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I consider this initiative, recently relaunched at the Riyadh summit, as constructive. If we want peace and stability, it is best to start talking, in particular among neighbors. Only a negotiated solution will break the impasse, and therefore the refugees are one element.
That being said, I am concerned that there be a balance between the rights of Israel to security and recognition by its neighbors and the right of Palestinians to a state. I deeply believe in this balance. Only if Israel is guaranteed that its existence will not be threatened and the Palestinians are allowed to form a viable state can we achieve a durable and viable solution.
Do you think Israel's security barrier falls under the protection of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which recognizes the right of legitimate defense against terrorist attacks? Do you believe the EU and France should place Hizbullah on their lists of terrorist organizations?
You know that I defend the right of Israel to protect itself against external aggression, particularly when it takes the form of blind and cowardly acts of terrorism. But the measures taken must not condemn the search for a negotiated peace settlement. They must be appropriate and proportional.
Concerning Hizbullah, I understand that we can ask ourselves this question, given its attitude and the means it resorts to. However I am not convinced that such a debate is useful in the current Lebanese context, where appeasement is sought out.
I can only support the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah. If Hizbullah is really the political party it claims to be, let it truly behave as such and finally lay down its arms.
The Iranian threat is becoming more imminent. Certain countries like France, Spain and Italy seem to be more in favor of dialogue than other members of the international community. What is your position on the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
I want to be clear on Iran. It is unacceptable and dangerous that Iran pursues a militarily nuclear capability. Iran has the opportunity to reestablish confidence concerning the nature of its nuclear activities. That is what the UN Security Council has signaled to Teheran by unanimously voting for Resolution 1737. The important thing in this crisis is to maintain the firmness and the unity of the international community and its determination to contain the risks of proliferation. This European policy of firmness and of dialogue, which can be traced back to 2003, is today shared by all permanent members of the Security Council and will define my actions if elected.
With regard to Mr. Ahmadinejad, I remind you of what I have already said about his attitudes and positions. His call for the destruction of Israel and denial of the reality of the Shoah are totally inadmissible and irresponsible. I am actually not even sure these views are shared by a majority of Iranians, far from it.
You launched the idea of a Mediterranean Union as an alternative to admitting Turkey as a permanent member of the EU. Do you have a Mediterranean policy?
Turkey is a great country and a great ally for which I have much respect. If I am against its admission to the EU, it is not because I am against Turkey, but because I am for a "traditional" Europe. It seems to me that there is a fundamental contradiction between the admission of Turkey and the project of a more integrated Europe.
The EU cannot have infinite borders, and it seems to me that for reasons of history, geography and culture, Turkey has no place inside of these borders. I find hard to accept an EU which extends to the borders of Syria and Iraq.
I would also like to remind you that the inclusion of Turkey was envisioned about 45 years ago, and at the time, it was into a common market, a customs union, but not into a political union.
I therefore seek the establishment of a strategic partnership, economic as well as cultural, with Turkey and other states circling the Mediterranean. This is the basis of the Euro-Mediterranean union that I proposed. Europe cannot turn its back on the Mediterranean, which is a component of its identity.