A "Pro-American" French President?

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Eric Bouvet / Getty

French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy.

Headlines and official statements from the U.S. hailed Sunday's election of the "pro-American" Nicolas Sarkozy as France's new President, painting him as healer-elect of the trans-Atlantic friendship damaged by the Iraq war. Even the French themselves have begun to see him as a harbinger of a closer relationship with the U.S. But while the new President's foreign policy will feature some differences from that of his predecessor — even some surprises — analysts have poured cold water on the idea that in foreign policy, Sarkozy will be the "anti-Chirac."

"Sarkozy is a committed European and an admirer of America, but in the end he's going to do what's best for France's national interests — and his own political fortunes," notes Dominique Reynié, a commentator and political science professor at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris. "Sarkozy has yet to articulate a unified foreign policy view, and for a while will probably be making decisions pragmatically, based on the issues and interests at hand. That's going to involve some surprises — including some that may not entirely please the U.S."

For now, however, Sarkozy is keen to start diplomatic relations with Washington on a clean slate, as his Sunday night victory speech noted. In it, Sarkozy surprised observers who had expected a focus on domestic matters by dedicating nearly half his discourse to international topics — beginning with Franco-American ties. "I want to make an appeal to our American friends to tell them that they can count on our friendship, which has been reinforced by the tragedies of history that we've faced together," Sarkozy said to cheers of approval from his supporters. "I want to tell them that France will always be at their side when they need her." In doing so, Sarkozy's message was obvious: France wants to restore positive, mutually beneficial relationships with an America it respects and admires — and it would like those feelings reciprocated.

But Sarkozy then emphasized that repairing the relationship also depends on Washington. As Reynié notes, it was largely the Bush Administration that injected fury into the debate over Iraq, and tried to paint the general European and global opposition to the U.S. push for war as a betrayal inspired by Chirac and France. With that in mind, Sarkozy reminded America that "friendship also means accepting friends can think differently." He then offered an example of that by mildly scolding that "a great nation like the United States must not be an obstacle to the fight against global warming, but rather should take the lead in this fight." "France will make that struggle its first battle," Sarkozy pledged.

Sarkozy's global warming plans could eventually lead to conflict with Washington, because the President-elect plans to get his European Union partners to impose import taxes on all polluting goods produced in countries that declined to embrace the Kyoto accords. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's strong opposition to Turkey's admission to the EU also runs counter to long-running American lobbying on behalf of Ankara. Though less pedantic in his declarations on the matter, Sarkozy shares Chirac's view that international issues must be addressed multilaterally among equal partners. Washington can also expect no aid on an Iraq war that Sarkozy has referred to "a historical error," even though his criticisms of French diplomatic "arrogance" in the run-up to the invasion suggest Sarkozy will seek to avoid confrontation even when he begs to differ with the U.S.

The first test of his approach to dealing with the U.S. may, however, be over Afghanistan, where the merging of forces under NATO command will place French and other European soldiers in combat rather than simply policing roles at the very moment Paris has moved to decrease it involvement there. Sarkozy, in fact, shares Chirac's unease over the expanding membership of NATO, and the increasingly global scope of the Alliance's armed interventions.

Washington will, however, be pleased by Sarkozy's pledge to call regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere to task over human rights concerns. The U.S. will also appreciate the more muscular stance against Iran's nuclear program advocated by Sarkozy, including possible bilateral sanctions that Chirac had excluded in favor of a collective United Nations approach. "The upside of Sarkozy having no unified international agenda is he can remain pragmatic and flexible — base decisions on practicality rather than deep principle," Reynié says. "The downside is his domestic economic program does the same by favoring reform and market forces, but reserving the right to intervention and state leadership when necessary. That approach lets you weave through conflict, but it can also cause confusion, or even chaos."