Le grand spectacle

What can Israel expect from the new French government?

Hollande sworn in as French president 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hollande sworn in as French president 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday May 15, the “grand spectacle” of the French power change took place about three metro stops from where I am sitting in Paris. In the days following the ceremonies, the new president, Francois Hollande, announced his new cabinet, which includes Laurent Fabius as foreign minister and Jean-Yves le Drian as defense minister. Two weeks after these decisions, we still have very little information about what these picks will mean for France’s policies toward the Middle East in general, and for Israel in particular.
While some general trends that differentiate Hollande’s foreign policy from Sarkozy’s have been identified, reality tends to temper election promises and expectations for a major shift in the French position are subdued.
However, while Hollande certainly wakes up each morning to the same foreign policy challenges as Sarkozy – which the outgoing president sardonically congratulated him for – Hollande faces an additional challenge that few have evaluated so far: the force of those supporters who gathered at the Bastille in the evening and early morning after his victory. What powers do those supporters have to influence Hollande’s foreign policy, and in which direction? What does this mean for the Middle East and for Israel? While we could certainly argue that their influence is likely to be marginal (after all the French presidency is a powerful institution with a lot of autonomy) it is important to note that the eclectic and multi-ethnic crowd that gathered at the Bastille to celebrate the fall of Sarkozy may have very different foreign policy preferences than Sarkozy’s supporters.
Even as Hollande’s focus in the early months of his presidency is mostly expected to be domestic and EU-related, no spectator that evening failed to notice that the array of flags and banners that were waved in abundance at the Bastille were not all French. The, Iraqi, Syrian, Algerian, Italian, gay, Palestinian, Communist and Greek flags were instead a sign that Hollande’s campaign had succeeded in drawing in the support of French immigrant minorities, many of them of North African and Middle Eastern origin. Badly in need of greater economic and social integration, these communities will make strong demands of the domestic policies of the new government, but they are also likely to end up severely disappointed if Hollande’s foreign policies toward the North African and Middle Eastern region ignore their sensitivities.
WITH LIMITED foreign policy experience, Hollande has already been plunged headfirst into the realities of a strong head of state, discussions with Angela Merkel about the Euro crisis on the day after taking office, and a meeting with Obama on 17 May. During the election campaign Hollande avoided the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of voicing opposition to the Iranian nuclear developments; clearly supporting stronger sanctions combined with stepped up efforts to negotiate with the Iranian regime.
His only election promise that was directly linked to foreign policy, the withdrawing of French troops from Afghanistan earlier than planned, is thought to be difficult to carry out due to the logistics of getting both personnel and equipment out on a tight schedule. Under these uncertain circumstances, the significance of Hollande’s choice for foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, can not be underestimated, as it will determine the direction that the new French president will take in the Middle East.
Laurent Fabius is a strong figure who has already had an important career in politics, including an unsuccessful run for president of the Socialist Party in 2007. Although he has declared himself “absolutely hostile” to a nuclear-armed Iran, he has also declared a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran to be enormously dangerous.
Fabius is expected to deepen French involvement in North Africa and the Middle East in order to improve the French image with the new populist Arab regimes, which has suffered partly as a result of Sarkozy’s policies and French support of Arab dictators. To this end, some analysts believe, he is likely to appoint an Arabist to lead his foreign policy team.
THE FIRST real test for Fabius’ Middle East policy is likely to come with the quickly deteriorating situation in Syria. While criticizing Sarkozy for not being tougher on Assad during the election campaign, Fabius recently expressed doubts in an interview in Le Monde that an internationally supported ground intervention in Syria would be feasible, given the strength of the Syrian regime and the fear of a regionalization of the conflict. With Russia blocking further action on Syria through the Security Council, any concerted international efforts to toughen the political pressure on Damascus will also be difficult. Syria is an important Moscow ally, a big recipient of Russian arms, and home to the only Russian naval base outside the former Soviet Union. Putin, who visited both Berlin and Paris on Friday has indicated that although his government shares concerns over Asad’s human rights violations, Russian policy on Syria is “well balanced” and will not change under Western pressure.
When visiting both Israel and the Palestinians on behalf of Hollande two months before the elections, Fabius ensured both sides that they had no reason to worry. However, there is a widespread belief that Sarkozy was a stronger ally to Israel. The director for IFRI (Institut Français de Relations Internationales), Dominique Moisi, who in an interview to France 24 described Fabius as a “left-wing Juppé,” maintains that Hollande’s election will mean “less negative emotions toward Turkey and less positive emotions towards Israel.” The French community in Israel seemed to share this sentiment as, according to Ha’aretz, they voted overwhelmingly for Sarkozy (92 percent), with one voter saying that “socialists were never good for the Jews.”
On the question of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Hollande may be more likely than Sarkozy to support the recognition of a Palestinian state in the case of a repeat bid by the Palestinians to the United Nations. Such policies – as well as future support for newly emerging Arab populist regimes – may be influenced by his domestic constituencies, making it less likely that Israeli diplomacy to foil such a bid would be effective. Most likely such domestic pressure would also impact France’s position within the EU, spurring it to take a tougher and more non-conciliatory stance on issues that deal with EU-Israel relations, especially with respect to settlements.
Thus, while we should not expect an upheaval in French-Israeli relations as a result of Hollande’s election, Israeli diplomats may indeed have a busy schedule ahead of them.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in Washington, DC.