Pro-American Yes, French Poodle No


May 7, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on May 7, 2007.

Many in the United States will no doubt be pleased at Nicolas Sarkozy's victory in the French presidential election on Sunday. They should — but not because he is likely to be any more conciliatory toward the United States than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

The campaign created the perception that Sarkozy was more pro-American than his opponent Ségolène Royal. This is true, but not necessarily on foreign policy. If anyone in Washington thinks Sarkozy will be a French version of Tony Blair, a "French poodle" as the wags would have it, they are in for a surprise.

Sarkozy's pro-Americanism is noteworthy in a country increasingly disenfranchised with its American ally. But it is important to recognize that the new president's pro-American views are largely confined to economic, social and to a lesser degree cultural issues.

Sarkozy intends, for example, to introduce affirmative action measures to help France's Muslim population integrate better into the national economy. More importantly, he has consistently favored economic reforms that, especially in the French context, have a distinctly American ring. The central economic plank of his election platform was that France needs to rediscover the value of work.

Yet on key foreign policy issues, in spite of avowedly pro-American sentiments, Sarkozy has actively opposed positions that will grate against prevailing U.S. policy.

For example, he strongly favors the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change; he appears reticent about allowing U.S. missile defense sites in Europe, and he rejects Turkish membership in the European Union. His rejection of Turkey's EU bid is, in turn, a reflection of a "political" vision of the European Union that has long caused consternation and even trepidation in the United States.

Moreover, his likely policy on French involvement in Afghanistan — the most important current issue in NATO from the U.S. perspective — will do very little to foster Franco-American comity. The United States wants more French forces made available for deployment in combat conditions, but Sarkozy is talking about pulling them out altogether.

It is possible that Sarkozy might undertake a diplomatic "charm initiative." But such an initiative would probably be short-lived given the difficult domestic political challenges he faces and the current unpopularity of the United States in France.

Two of the most important campaign promises Sarkozy will need to fulfill — economic reform and progress on European integration — are very controversial in France.

His new mandate notwithstanding, to succeed in either area he will need every ounce of political capital he can gather — especially if conservatives lose the upcoming parliamentary elections in June. In these circumstances, undertaking domestically unpopular actions to help the United States in the Middle East, or elsewhere, will not be high on Sarkozy's list of priorities.

On the whole, it is too easy to ignore the fact that most of the major issues dividing France and America today — as between the United States and Europe more broadly — have deep roots. Differences over Afghanistan, climate change, the International Criminal Court or what to do about Iraq reflect deeper differences of strategic perspective, national interest or even culture. They are not about to change in any enduring way simply because of a change at the top.

Of course, even if he proves less amiable than some hope, Sarkozy's election is still in many respects a positive development for France's allies, including the United States.

Sarkozy's proposed economic reforms should substantially improve France's ability to contribute to regional and even global security in the medium term, while at the same time improving the lot of France's Muslim population and thereby helping ameliorate the conditions that have bred radical Islam.

Likewise, France is crucial to the EU, and if Sarkozy's proposals for pressing forward with institutional reform succeed — and France rediscovers its role as an engine of European integration — the United States will be able to count on a stronger, less inwardly focused trans-Atlantic partner.

During the Cold War, many in Washington grew accustomed to thinking of Europe's right-leaning leadership as natural allies. In the context of a bipolar order in which the enemy defined itself by its socialist sympathies, this may have made some sense. Today, however, the habit must be unlearned.

France is now a different country with a very different set of foreign policy concerns than during the Cold War. The United States should continue to work with it, but recognize that however strong common interests are, the differences between the two nations are not going away. All the more reason for managing expectations, given the many common interests the two nations still share.

Christopher S. Chivvis, trans-Atlantic fellow at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, is writing a book about French political economy.

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