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Middle East policy has been the most important and controversial international issue in the hard-fought French presidential election campaign. And depending on the results, the vote could mark the first major change in that policy for three decades.
Both Nicolas Sarkozy and S gol ne Royal, the candidates of the center-right and the Socialists, respectively, have promised major shifts in France's stance on the Iranian, Lebanese, and Israeli-Palestinian issues if they win.
They are reacting against the regime of outgoing President Jacques Chirac, who for 12 years - following in the footsteps of predecessors back to Charles de Gaulle - has allied the country with Arab dictators such as Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein. By making France the Arabs' favorite Western state, Chirac and other Gaullists have tried to create an alignment to counter the great - and in France, much-despised - primacy of the United States.
Many say this strategy has brought little benefit to France, either directly or in terms of making it a credible world power. The strategy suffers from many internal contradictions. For example, French policy seeks to protect Lebanon while refusing to regard Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. And in January, Chirac said an Iran in possession of nuclear bombs would "not be so dangerous," reversing previous official positions.
The two largest French newspapers, Le Figaro and Le Monde, have highlighted this debate in reviews of a new book entitled Chirac of Arabia: The Mirages of French Policy, by ric Aeschimann and Christophe Boltanski, two journalists from the leftist newspaper Lib ration. The authors underline French errors, in particular on the Palestinian issue, which Chirac perceived solely through Arafat's eyes.
They also document the close personal relations between Chirac, then prime minister, and Hussein in the mid-1970s, when Chirac received substantial funds from Baghdad for his political party in exchange for French support for the Iraqi nuclear program. Chirac said then: "Saddam will be the De Gaulle of the Middle East."
The same story goes for Chirac's ties to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s. Ironically, though, when Libya recently wanted to break out of international isolation, it turned not to France, but to the US and Great Britain.
For Chirac's would-be successors on the Left and Right, and indeed among large sectors of the French political spectrum, the broad consensus on the country's historic Middle East policy is crumbling. Candidates have been eager to dissociate themselves from Chirac's line on Syria, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians.
In the Socialist camp, Royal has adopted a very hard stance on Iran's nuclear weapons program. She declared that Iran ought to be denied control of civilian nuclear power, because it could be a cover for weapons-making.
According to her analysis, "The prospect of Iran equipped with nuclear power is not acceptable," since it would give "a government whose president threatens the existence of the State of Israel access to such power."
And Royal has dissociated herself from France's pro-Palestinian stance. Expressing concerns about Israel's security, she voiced support for the construction of the security barrier so disparaged by French officials.
Sarkozy, the Gaullist candidate, has adopted a strategic stance in total opposition to Chirac's Middle East vision. He prefers close cooperation with the US over an alliance with the Arab world that, to some extent, is aimed against America.
On Israel, Sarkozy promises a more balanced policy. Last month, he said French decision-makers must be able "to say a certain number of truths to our Arab friends, for example: that the right of Israel to exist and to live in safety is not negotiable, and that terrorism is their true enemy." He also declared himself ready to defend "the integrity of Lebanon," including the disarmament of Hizbullah.
As for centrist candidate Fran ois Bayrou, the third principal contestant, he said that while remaining faithful to a realpolitik, power-oriented conception of international affairs, he also wishes "to establish a French foreign policy that would have as a main theme the right to democracy. No dictatorship is acceptable, even if, in the short-term, it appears to benefit the national interests" of France.
It should be noted that there is no question of such statements being designed to appeal to a Jewish vote. Muslim voters vastly outnumber Jewish ones. Rather, there is a genuine conclusion that current policies have not worked and indeed has undercut both French interests and ambitions.
This challenge to France's historic pro-Arab policy could lead to a new vision for the Middle East. Under this alternative approach, France could play a major role in the defense of Lebanon's independence, containing the Iranian threat, combating terrorism, building strong relations with Israel, playing a truly central role in peacemaking efforts, and even cooperating with the United States.
When it comes to Middle East policy, there is a chance for a real French revolution.
St phanie L vy is a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya. She previously worked for the French Ministry of Defense.
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