Watching France run interference for Israel in the run-up to the recent U.N. vote on the Goldstone inquiry into last winter's Gaza war, Arab governments may have felt a pang of nostalgia for the era before President Nicolas Sarkozy took power. Sarkozy has shaken up France's foreign policy by mending Franco-American ties battered by the Iraq war, restoring France to full NATO membership, and taking a a more hawkish line in the nuclear show-down with Iran than his American counterpart. But nowhere has Sarkozy's imprint been more visible than in the Middle East, where he has rebalanced France's customarily pro-Arab positions with a warm embrace of Israel, a state regarded frostily as a troublemaker by past French presidents.
But French officials say France's new warming to Israel has not come at Arab expense, and is based instead on the pursuit of greater influence in the region through taking a more central role in resolving its longest-running conflict. And they see French support of Israel in the U.N. vote as a case in point.
Before the Human Rights Council voted, by a margin of 25-6, to adopt a report accusing both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in Gaza last winter, France joined the U.S. and Britain in seeking concessions from Israel toward the Palestinians that could help persuade them to drop the resolution for now. When that failed, France made two appeals for the vote to be delayed, but was rebuffed by Egypt, historically one of France's staunchest Arab allies.
Over the past four decades, Paris may have been a closer ally of and advocate for Arab regimes than any other Western power, but French officials say Sarkozy's main objective in the region is an enduring peace through the creation of a Palestinian state and guarantees for Israel's security goals that cannot be achieved while relations with Israel remain cool.
"France can contribute more to the peace process by maintaining the friendliest and most productive relations with all players than it can if some of those think it favors one side over the other," a French diplomat says, on condition of anonymity. Apropos France's efforts to block the Human Rights Council vote, he explains, "If the longer-term goal is to find a way for people to shake hands and exist together, what purpose does doling out short-term slaps in public serve? Our feeling was ostracizing Israel this way could only make getting the peace process back on track more difficult."
Whereas French presidents since Charles de Gaulle have tilted toward the Arab states and demanded more of Israel in the search for peace, Sarkozy has embraced Israel as an ally and has put its security on a par with Palestinian rights. Sarkozy's warmth toward Israel should not be mistaken for a strategic shift. French national interests have been defined to include close relations with Arab states, after all, and those ties have actually been quietly deepened even as Sarkozy has reached out to Israel.
"Apart from his dealings with Israel and his very radical stand against Iran, Sarkozy's Middle East policy has been very similar to those of his predecessors only with more activist engagement," explains Jean-François Daguzan, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Sarkozy has shown he wants France to play a much larger, active role in the region than it has in the past, and to do that it has to have stronger ties to Israel, but without alarming its traditional Arab allies."
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of Sarkozy strengthening ties in the Arab world during his tenure. He brought Syria out from international isolation, for starters, and then sought to use Paris' privileged position with Damascus to create political stability in Lebanon. Earlier this year, Sarkozy similarly enlisted Syria and Egypt to help his drive to halt the violence in Gaza. Sarkozy has also upped France's ability to project power in the region and sent yet another warning in Iran's direction with this year's inauguration of a new permanent French military naval and air compound in Abu Dhabi.
"Sarkozy has also improved his relations with leaders in Iraq with an eye toward reconstruction there," Daguzan notes with a chuckle. "That may be the only move that Americans might take issue with, since the rest of what he's done has largely been moving in the same direction as the U.S."
The single most important explanation for Sarkozy's activism in search of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, a simple one: He's trying to succeed where, until now, the U.S. has failed.