Edition 36 Volume 5 - September 20, 2024

French Middle East policy under Sarkozy

Sarkozy and Turkey -   Ahmet O. Evin

During the election campaign, many Turks came to view Sarkozy as an unrelenting Turcophobe.

France and Lebanon -   Michel Nehme

The Lebanese case is an indication that France's foreign policy will be rhetoric-oriented and action-weak.

Sarkozy, neo-Gaullist? -   Eric Rouleau

Will the United States allow France to establish its preeminence in a region where important American interests are at stake?

Sarkozy's rebalancing act -   Claire Spencer

He has been bulldozing his way out of the stereotype that saw France in opposition to everything the US has done in the Middle East.

Sarkozy and Turkey
 Ahmet O. Evin

Nicholas Sarkozy's oft repeated and blunt statements throughout his presidential campaign brought the Turkish issue into the center of French politics and reinforced it as one of the predominant concerns of European integration. Both the Turkish public and leadership have become accustomed to voices raised against Turkey's membership of the EU by, for example, Giscard d'Estaing and, more recently, by almost the entire spectrum of Austrian political leaders. But Sarkozy's obsession with Turkey in the context of French domestic politics appeared to have been driven more by personal convictions than policy considerations. Many Turks, in short, came to view Sarkozy as an unrelenting Turcophobe.

Some observers, however, thought that a somber consideration of issues would replace the inflammatory rhetoric of the campaign once elections were over. After all, Angela Merkel, who had been staunchly opposed to Turkey's full membership of the union, had to admit, even if half-heartedly, the dictum pacta sunt servanda after becoming chancellor. It is true that populism was one of the motivations to cater to the anti-Turkish membership sentiments of the French public, but the fact that Sarkozy's stand continued unaltered after the elections points to deeper resistance in France to Turkey's membership.

The broad opposition in France to Turkey's membership of the union is linked to a range of concerns, attitudes and perceptions. One is the French unease with enlargement, particularly its perceived economic as well as cultural consequences. Enlargement is seen as a threat to the domestic labor market and capital investments as well as to the Union's coherence and efficiency.

Second, France, host of the largest Muslim population in Europe, feels more acutely the frustration of having failed to integrate even the second or third generation Muslims born locally into French citizenship. Not only are Turks, who represent less than five percent of Muslim residents of France, considered in the same category as Muslim aliens who put a wall of animosity between their culture and essential French values (as some of the Turkish immigrants who uphold their particular values based on religious-communitarian priorities undoubtedly do). But Turkey's membership is also associated with the dire consequences, socially and culturally, of bringing into the union a country of over 70 million Muslims who are perceived to be waiting to migrate to Western Europe but remain strangers there.

The third and politically most significant factor is the existence of an elite consensus in France that Turkey does not belong to Europe. In this respect the old guard is in full agreement with Sarkozy; business interests and investment in Turkey are ignored in the face of strong etatist economic culture. Opening the French economy to global competition, as Sarkozy claims he will do, might ironically reduce French apprehension toward Turkey's membership, but only if cultural apprehensions are also addressed by the political leadership.

Turkey, on the other hand, has unwittingly been sending mixed signals that tend to confirm rather than diffuse French concerns. The reformist, pro-EU AKP seems not to have overcome its obsession with allowing a certain type of women's headscarf (not a traditional Turkish one) to be worn in schools and other public places, despite even European Court of Human Rights decisions to uphold the ban. A battle over public projection of religious preferences serves only to confirm French (and other European) suspicions of Turks being different from Europeans.

On the other hand, the French also tend to wince upon hearing time and again from ideological adherents to laicite that Turkey's modernization was based on the French model. The French political agenda, they are quick to point out, has changed since World War II and the perceived need in Turkey today to mobilize official support to protect secularism only serves to show how far Turkey's Muslim cultural environment is from European social values. Turkey's difference comes into even sharper relief when it turns out that the strongest secularist actor happens to be the armed forces.

If particular features of Turkey's political dynamics prove to be baffling to outside observers, the variety of ways in which the French (as opposed to the leaders of pro-Turkish accession countries such as Spain, Sweden and the UK, to name only three) would identify and call attention to the "otherness" of Turkey has been a source of frustration to Turks of all political leanings. Turkish observers take Sarkozy's statements to mean "anything but Turkey's membership of the Union". Such views are reinforced by Sarkozy's idea of a special role for Turkey in the Mediterranean that appears to have been floated without adequate consideration of policy implications. It will arguably lead nowhere, if lessons are drawn from the Barcelona process.

Whither, then, relations between France and Turkey given this grim outlook? There are surprising developments that have come about as of this writing. On the Turkish side, the prime minister's forthcoming meeting with Sarkozy in New York is a positive sign of engagement, rather than rejection, in keeping especially with the "EU way of doing business". On the French side, President Sarkozy, in a recent unexpected turn of phrase, said France would not oppose opening new chapters in Turkey's accession negotiations, although he reiterated his personal reservations about Turkey's full membership.

Other significant developments have been the proposal to re-amend the French constitution to drop the requirement, introduced under Jacques Chirac, to have a public referendum on future enlargements. (This initiative appears to have been motivated by reasons completely different from facilitating Turkish accession, namely Sarkozy's support for the Nabucco project and his wish to ensure French involvement in it, articulated in his visit to Budapest in mid-September. Turkey, as one of the principals as well as the transit hub, had earlier vetoed French involvement in the project in response to the introduction of legislation in France to criminalize negation of Armenian genocide). Even more surprising is the recent news that France might wish to return to NATO's military wing, an entirely credible shift of policy, given Sarkozy's priority to mend fences with the US. In order to be able to do that, however, France would need to secure Turkey's approval.

The key issue is that France cannot be expected to override or reverse decisions made by the European Council regarding the conditions and procedures in respect to Turkey's accession. Quid pro quo, Turkey has to resolve its own democratic deficits to qualify for accession even while fully protecting secularism. Exceptionalism, of the French or of the Turkish kind, will not work in the EU, but peculiarities of founding member states are tolerated for a longer period than those of accession countries.- Published 20/9/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ahmet O. Evin is founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University. He is a professor of political science at Sabanci and is a member of the board of directors of Istanbul Policy Center.

France and Lebanon
 Michel Nehme

Considering Lebanon's history as a former French-ruled territory, it is obvious that the election of Nicholas Sarkozy as president of France should be attended to by all politicians trying to influence the new French administration. Even Hizballah welcomed the election result and urged the new leader to make policy decisions more appropriate to the balance of power in Lebanon. Syria, another former French-ruled territory that since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri had been at odds with France over its Lebanon policy, also congratulated Sarkozy. President Bashar Assad expressed hope that relations between Syria and France would develop in both countries' interests.

For reasons of his own, former French President Jacques Chirac openly sided with the Lebanese government and its allies against Syria and its dependents in the Lebanese opposition thus also alienating Hizballah. Chirac led an international campaign in support of Lebanon's government, organizing a Paris donors' conference that raised more than US$7 billion in soft loans and grants. In addition, he sent French troops as peacekeepers to southern Lebanon to monitor a ceasefire that ended the fighting last year between Hizballah and Israel.

Though the French consider foreign policy not a luxury but a necessity, France's foreign policy has traditionally been characterized by much talk and little action. Chirac's attitude to Lebanon proved an exception. There are thus many issues, some of them political time bombs, to which this new French government has to pay attention. Sarkozy, so far, has confined himself to general pronouncements on points of principle, with occasional detailed statements on the three great French foreign policy issues of the day: relations with the United States, the French presence in Africa and the conflicts in the Middle East.

The transatlantic link is an extremely sensitive issue, especially since the debacle in Iraq and the Democrats' victory in the US mid-term elections in November. It would seem from the statements of the new French administration that any tendency toward a link, or at least any open expression of it, is now sensitive across the entire political spectrum. Though Sarkozy confessed that France had not been entirely blameless in its relations with the US, he also understands the dangers in openly siding with US President George W. Bush or appearing to condone US policy under Bush. Nevertheless, the Middle East is likely to provide an avenue to bring France closer to the US.

All too often France's policy toward Lebanon and Syria is being taken as a positive development among those who feared that Chirac's demarche might be tied less to France's interests and more to the personal dimension of the ties between Chirac and the Hariri family, as well as Chirac's personal pique at the Syrian regime he blames for the elder Hariri's assassination. Announcements by Sarkozy suggest that he is inclined to continue Chirac's policy on Lebanon, in spite of proclaiming that he is going to have to take it all a great deal further, a proclamation that is not tied to any obvious practical agenda.

Lebanon isn't the only Middle East issue that brings France closer to the US, especially since recently the UK has started to retreat from Iraq causing a rift between the present American and British administrations. The latest reports of Sarkozy's senior foreign policy appointments offer at least some hope that Paris will prefer coordination, rather than friction, with Washington. Bernard Kouchner, the new foreign minister, is co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and one of those rare Frenchmen who, in 2024, broke with France's anti-American consensus over the invasion of Iraq.

Kouchner is expected to play the primary role in settling the Lebanese problem while the new premier, Francois Fillon, is expected to focus on domestic affairs. Kouchner has already made a number of comments on the issue, including that the choice of a new Lebanese president should be a democratic one and should not be based on force. The Lebanese, he argued, have the right to choose a president who represents their desires and is held accountable before them and not before Syria. However, the issue requires Lebanese solidarity and presupposes efforts to unite the internal front to resume the democratic process. Without a Lebanese effort toward agreement and understanding, no initiative can ever succeed. Kouchner also said he is ready to open up in a "spectacular way" to Syria if it stops meddling in Lebanon. But for this to happen, France needs guarantees.

These are all colorful statements but so far are devoid of any plan of action. The Lebanese case is an indication that France's foreign policy will be rhetoric-oriented and action-weak. Lebanon is an important file for French foreign policy, but France appears to be in dire need of Arab action, especially Saudi mediation, to help sort out Lebanese-Syrian relations.- Published 20/9/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Michel Nehme is director of University International Affairs, Notre Dame University, Lebanon.

Sarkozy, neo-Gaullist?
 Eric Rouleau

"An American with a French passport", "Bush's new poodle", "a populist neo-conservative": neither Nicolas Sarkozy's recent statements nor his behavior has substantiated these accusations hurled at him before his election as president of the French republic. True, the candidate did not attempt to contradict his enemies or conceal his admiration for President George W. Bush and his policies, whether on domestic or foreign issues. His brief pre-election visit to the White House, where he insisted that photographs be taken of his handshake with Bush, was considered a significant message.

Sarkozy is undoubtedly a man of the right, probably the most conservative president France has had since the establishment of the Fifth Republic by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. But the moment he crossed the threshold of the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy projected an unexpected new image of himself. Although he is not himself a Gaullist, he proceeded to implement a foreign policy similar to the founder of the Fifth Republic.

He chose as his diplomatic counselor at the Elysee Palace Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, a pure product of the Quai d'Orsay, a Gaullist stronghold, and a man who exercises much more influence than Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a pro-American socialist. In a recent television interview, Levitte indicated that French foreign policy would remain fundamentally unchanged (which has been the case during the past 50 years, no matter who was president); he stated that the controversial "Arab policy" of the Fifth Republic would be pursued with the purpose of developing and consolidating relations with states of the Middle East. Plainly, French national interests do not change from one president to another.

Sarkozy has been rather vague concerning the Arab-Israel conflict, while stating over and over again that the security of the Jewish state should be guaranteed alongside the creation of a "viable Palestinian state". He is not an unconditional supporter of all Israeli policies; it is well-known that Paris and Jerusalem do not see eye to eye on various problems. France is urging PM Ehud Olmert to accelerate the release of pro-Fateh prisoners, to ease freedom of movement in the occupied territories by removing many checkpoints and to deal with Hamas in Gaza by means other than violence. More importantly, Paris shares the Arab view that the international conference to be held next November should discuss core issues leading to a lasting peace. It is also no secret that French diplomacy has always maintained that future frontiers should be as close as possible to the pre-1967 "green line", in conformity with UN Security Council Resolution 242, and considers East Jerusalem as "occupied territory".

Unlike his predecessor at the Elysee Palace, Sarkozy does not denounce American unilateralism. But speaking of relations with the United States, he has declared more than once that "friendship does not mean allegiance" and "allies do not have to be aligned". These are precisely expressions used by General de Gaulle and his successors. Contradicting what many believe he said, Sarkozy has denied vigorously that he ever approved of the invasion of Iraq by American and allied troops. "I believe that it was a very serious mistake," he stated without blinking, and he endorsed Jacques Chirac's statement that American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible "according to a precise timetable". These remarks were probably intended to satisfy a majority (more than 70 percent) of his countrymen who remain hostile to the American occupation of Iraq.

The French president's alarmist prediction that war will be unavoidable if Iran proceeds to produce atomic weapons has been widely interpreted as favorable to President Bush's decision to "keep all options on the table, including the use of force". A close examination of the statement, however, indicates that Sarkozy expressed his preference for a diplomatic solution, coupled with additional sanctions if necessary. He did not even hint that he would participate in military operations that, he said, would be a "catastrophic" consequence of Tehran's stubbornness.

Although pursuing the same objectives as George Bush and Jacques Chirac in Lebanon, the French president has adopted a more flexible attitude toward Hizballah and Syria. He insisted on including representatives of the Islamic movement in the so-called "reconciliation" conference held recently near Paris. His spokesmen explained that Hizballah was not on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations and that, in any case, a deal with Hassan Nasrallah was indispensable to a settlement of the Lebanese crisis. He has also sent emissaries to Damascus with the intention of initiating a "useful dialogue".

Clearly, Nicolas Sarkozy is more ambitious than his predecessors in implementing "la politique Arabe de la France". His spectacular breakthrough in Libya, where he established a close political, military, nuclear and cultural relationship, demonstrates that ideology is of no concern to him.

Is he unrealistic in planning to establish a "Mediterranean union" that would assemble all states bordering the sea? The obstacles he has to overcome are overwhelming. Will the Arab states accept to be associated with Israel in implementing a large variety of joint ventures in the fields of economic development, the promotion of health, education, security and the protection of the environment? Will they trust Sarkozy, who has repeatedly committed the blunder of proclaiming that colonialism also had positive effects in occupied countries?

Will Algeria and Morocco, whose relations are all but friendly, accept to cooperate? As for Turkey, it is doubtful that it would join an alliance intended to become an alternative to its membership in the European Union. Will the United States allow France to establish its preeminence in a region where important American interests are at stake? The French ambassador in Tunisia was right in saying that the "Mediterranean union" is neither a project nor even a precise concept. Will it ever mature?- Published 20/9/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Eric Rouleau, journalist and author, was French ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia. From 1955 to 1985 he was a special correspondent and editorial writer for Le Monde.

Sarkozy's rebalancing act
 Claire Spencer

The world got so used to Jacques Chirac's 12-year reign over France's Middle East policy that Nicolas Sarkozy's entry en scene inevitably caused a stir. Even before taking office, in May 2024, Sarkozy was announcing new arrangements for the Mediterranean. By shaking new life into the European Union's 10-year old Barcelona process, these raised as many questions as they sought to answer. Reaffirming France's opposition to Turkey's entry into the EU in almost the same breath, Sarkozy's attempts to put some flesh on the bones of this Euro-Mediterranean Union were all but swamped by the flurry of Turkish denunciations of the plan and EU-wide scepticism over its feasibility. In a pattern that looks set to repeat itself, the details of this plan still remain to be fully spelled out.

Over the summer, Sarkozy's attention--and that of his wife Cecilia--turned to Libya and a widely publicized French coup that upstaged collective EU efforts to secure the release of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor detained for a decade on unsubstantiated charges of infecting hundreds of local children with the HIV virus. Sweeping aside the question of exactly how financial compensation to the families would be handled--since to call any financial assistance "recompense" would be tantamount to an admission of guilt--Sarkozy stole the headlines with a series of bilateral accords with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, ranging from arms sales to French bilateral assistance in developing a civilian-use nuclear program in Libya.

Meanwhile, the entry of Sarkozy's new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, into Middle Eastern affairs has ruffled feathers beyond France's natural hunting ground of North Africa. In July, the outspoken Kouchner let slip the view that Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki would soon have to be replaced. On September 16, he followed this faux pas by saying that if nuclear diplomacy failed the world would have to prepare for the possibility of war with Iran. On both occasions, swift retractions--or precisions, as French officialdom would say--followed on: to Maliki, direct apologies were offered; over Iran, it was French Prime Minister Francois Fillon who made it clear that France would not be joining those eager to bomb Tehran into submission.

On Syria, Lebanon and virtually all the sacred cows of the Chirac era--above all the immutable backing of France for the Palestinians--Sarkozy and his new government have been ploughing new furrows and making new waves. Building on Sarkozy's own pro-Israel credentials, Kouchner was in Jerusalem in mid-September to volunteer French help to re-launch peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. Even the French daily Le Figaro read this as an undisguised attempt to secure French participation in the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference planned for November. On this occasion, the French foreign minister was at pains to reassure Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Palestinians who refuse to recognize the state of Israel (namely Hamas) would not be welcomed by France. In Syria, no less, Sarkozy's team has made conciliatory inroads with the Asad regime that were unthinkable in the days of Chirac's unconditional support for Rafiq Hariri and his successors in Lebanon.

What underlies this flurry of activity? On one level, the Sarkozy establishment is trying to do for the regional image of France what the Brown establishment has been doing for the regional and international image of Britain: namely, to reposition themselves collectively in a new relationship with the US over the Middle East. The difference is that where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been cautiously inserting cigarette papers between the overly US-dependent British position in Iraq and his predecessor's unstinting support for the global war on terror, Sarkozy has been bulldozing his way out of the stereotype that saw France in opposition to everything the US has done and is yet planning to do in the Middle East.

For better, and potentially for a great deal worse, the Bush administration will remain in place for over a year to come. Sarkozy's self-proclaimed "volontarist" approach has the merit of accepting that he has to do business with Bush, while he also seeks to position himself as the kind of mainstream leader who can produce results for the Middle East once Bush has gone.

Will it work? Not if Sarkozy's team continues to neglect the details and impact of what it is proposing to do in a region replete with skin-deep sensitivities and long memories. Not if the European partners the French will ultimately have to rely on are cast aside in the effort to move things forward. The Germans, for example, will be quick to react to any substantive change of direction over Iran, just as the British will bluntly refuse to allow the European Commission to have anything to do with a Mediterranean plan that explicitly excludes northern and eastern Europe.

At the same time, the Sarkozy approach is definitely a breath of fresh air. Unlike others, he noted and drew lessons from the all-but-complete absence of Arab leaders at the tenth anniversary summit of the EU's Barcelona process in 2024. What he proposes instead may well appear as a thin disguise for the promotion of France and French business interests in North Africa and the Middle East, but he has also challenged other Europeans to sit up and take note of what needs fixing in the EU's current laissez-faire approach. If Sarkozy succeeds in convincing the US that the days of French opposition based on principle are gone, then there could indeed be room for more constructive EU engagement in a more pluralistic Middle East than is possible under US hegemony alone. If others in Europe don't like his prescriptions, then they can come up with something better.

The downside, however, is the perennial French problem: often right in principle and substance (as over Iraq), the French establishment is frequently and equally wrong in its style of engagement with others. If the new Sarkozy approach means ditching a principled stand in support of Palestinians the better to curry favor with the US, then its lynchpin will scarcely be credible. Far better to balance good relations with the "right" kind of Israelis, the better to include rather than exclude the "wrong" kind of Palestinians, and convince the rest of the EU that only when all parties to the Arab-Israel conflict are accommodated can any of the core issues of the Mediterranean and Middle East be addressed.- Published 20/9/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Claire Spencer heads the Middle East Programme at Chatham House in London.

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