'I am a friend of Israel... I am also the friend of the Arabs'.
By ANDREW MLEO GIOSUÈ ROSEMARINE
France is buzzing. The excitement in the air is tangible. A new Pharaoh has risen to rule this great nation. Energetic right-winger Monsieur Nicholas Sarkozy has assumed power, after triumphing in last months presidential elections, against his charismatic and beautiful socialist opponent, Madame Segolene Royal. The witty French called it "the Sarko-Sego contest." The French president is the chief executive, and has similar powers under the constitution to the US president. As Sarkozy's party and its allies have just won a devastating majority in the parliamentary elections, he is the veritable Master of France. His socialist opponents are in total disarray.
Why the buzz? People are excited with their young new leader, his young choice of prime minister, Francois Fillon, and unprecedentedly high proportion of other young ministers, and Sarkozy's opening up to all of the people by inviting three opposition figures to join his cabinet. There's a feeling throughout France, and also Europe, that political progress stagnated in Jacques Chirac's second term of his presidency, and that Sarkozy, by contrast, is going to introduce many changes, in many areas of French domestic and international political life. Former French president, General Charles de Gaulle, once said of his country that it is impossible to rule a country that makes so many different cheeses. Sarkozy is determined to leave his imprint on all of them.
THIS FEELING of a new-dawn is shared by much of French Jewry, who are fed up of what it sees as the typical French governmental anti-Israel bias. France once ruled in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, and has striven successfully to maintain a privileged status with these countries, despite the hatred engendered by bloody wars of independence. The French withdrew from their colonies reluctantly, and fought hard to keep them. Forced out, they nonetheless sought over recent decades to placate their embittered former subjects, by actively courting their governments. This has often required, in the eyes of the makers of French foreign policy, adopting a strongly pro-Palestinian line, inevitably at loggerheads with Israel. In France, it is the president who is ultimately responsible for foreign relations, and the past president, Jacques Chirac, constantly spoke out against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, even when in Israel.
He also repeatedly made clear his dogged determination to veto President George W. Bush's attempts to get UN backing for a war against Iraq, a major-trading partner of France. And Chirac attacked Israel's operations against Hizbullah during the war of last summer.
Sarkozy, however, is a wine from a different vineyard, a cheese with a different parfum. He is seen as strongly pro-American and pro-Israel, and he backed the US invasion of Iraq. In answer to Ahmadinejad's calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, Sarkozy said in 2006, "Israel's existence is a historic responsibility for us all." He is known to have had a Jewish grandfather, and visited shul on Yom Kippur in the Neuilly district, while he was its mayor. President Sarkozy has chosen another backer of America's invasion of Iraq, the socialist Bernard Kouchner, to be his foreign minister. Kouchner is a popular figure in France, having set up the humanitarian medical organization, M decins Sans Fronti res. Determined to make his mark, Kouchner in the first days of his appointment has already been to Beirut to try and force the various Lebanese opposition groups to cooperate with the Lebanese government, in an attempt to avoid another Lebanese civil war. Kouchner is ready to talk to Hizbullah, and perhaps also to Hamas.
STILL, ISRAEL is rejoicing at Sarkozy's election. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that Israel's relations with "one of the most important and influential [governments] in the world, will be strengthened with President Sarkozy." Binyamin Netanyahu, described Sarkozy as "a friend of Israel and a personal friend." One Israeli journalist spoke of Israel Radio transmissions of reactions to Sarkozy's election sounding like a sustained chorus of a version of the song "Dovid Melech Yisrael" metamorphosed into "Sarko Melech Yisrael." Israeli newspapers were also gushing in their joy at Sarkozy's election.
But perhaps French Jewry's and Israel's expectations of the new President are a little excessive? Sarkozy recently received a delegation of Arab ambassadors with the words "Je suis un ami d'Isra l (I am a friend of Israel)."
This might at first sight appear as an extraordinarily frank and undiplomatic confrontation to Arab potentates. But he added "Je suis aussi l'ami des Arabes (I am also the friend of the Arabs.)"
Nicholas Sarkozy is a lawyer by training.
I think he would advise his clients, that it would be prudent to see what the new president does in the Middle East, before rushing to deliver judgment on him. But his rhetoric suggests that French policy in the Middle East may well be more balanced now, than in the past.
The writer, based in London, is an international lawyer.
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