Analysis: Is France about to become Israel's ally?

Both Sarkozy and Royal share a desire to redefine French foreign policy and distance themselves from classical Gaullist stances.

segolene royal 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
segolene royal 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
On May 6, center-right politician Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Segolene Royal will face off in the final round of French presidential elections to determine who will succeed President Jacques Chirac. Since the first-round results, April 22, the two have said little about foreign policy issues. In France, contrasting with other Western democracies, international affairs are considered the president's personal domain. Others, including opposition politicians and even the media, usually don't comment critically about France's foreign policy. In addition, in France as in other countries, elections are not won on foreign policy issues alone, though candidates can certainly lose on them. Nevertheless, each candidate is bashing his opponent on some things. The Middle East and the United States are the most controversial foreign policy topics for French public opinion. So Sarkozy has been strongly criticized during his trip to the United States last September, as if seeking good relations with Washington was some kind of sin, which indeed it has been in French politics up to now. Segolene Royal is being ridiculed for her incompetent mistakes during her visit to the Middle East in December 2006, playing on the notion that she lacks experience and knowledge. The twelve-year-long Chirac era has been characterized by a close friendship with Arab regimes, including radical ones, and enmity toward the United States. Now, however, both of his would-be successors are anxious to dissociate themselves from Chirac's line on foreign policy. This is despite the fact that Sarkozy is the candidate of Chirac's own party, while Royal is a disciple of former President Francois Mitterand who followed a strategy similar to that of Chirac, though less extreme. From the beginning of the campaign, Sarkozy, who was the least favorite candidate according to polls, has made no secret of his Atlanticism and has promised the Americans "France's friendship." Contrary to Chirac, Sarkozy has shown outstanding ease in his relations with the United States. He prefers close cooperation with the United States to an alliance with the increasingly anti-American Arab world. Whereas Chirac used to speak of the United States as a rival, Sarkozy prefers to evoke the American ally, which together with France and the entire Western world is facing the same terrorist threat. It is possible that Sarkozy if elected would change France's course for the first time since it was set by President Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the country's current political structure, in 1967. Thus, it is easy for Royal to denounce her rival's Atlanticism. Still, Royal has throughout the campaign adopted a tough stance regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program, similar to the US position. She declared that Iran should be denied control of nuclear power, as it could be a cover for weapons-making. According to her, "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." On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Royal has dissociated herself from the French pro-Palestinian stance. She has expressed concerns about Israel's security and has stated her support for the construction of the security fence so disparaged by French officials. Regarding Israel, Sarkozy has promised a more balanced French policy. Last March, he asserted that French decision-makers should be able "to say a certain number of truths to our Arab friends, for example, the right for Israel to exist and to live safely 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. The majority of French citizens living in Israel have indeed been convinced by Sarkozy's stance on the Middle East. Over 80 percent voted for him in the first election round, representing the greatest number of votes for Sarkozy among French expatriates. By pointing out the responsibility of Islamist groups in the violent riots that occurred in France during the fall of 2005, and by focusing his political program on a stricter French immigration policy, Sarkozy has alienated a significant number of French Muslims. Moreover, because he is seen as pro-American, he is viewed with mistrust by most of them. If elected president, he will undoubtedly have to redefine the terms of the old Gaullist alliance between Europe and the Maghreb/Middle East vis- -vis the American power. Stephanie Levy is a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. She previously worked for the French Ministry of Defense.