Sarkozy and NATO: Atlanticists Beware

Posted in NATO | 09-May-07 | Author: Phillip E. Cornell

French newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy applauds a speech at the Luxembourg gardens in Paris.

When Nicolas Sarkozy took the stage on Sunday to deliver his victory speech after winning 53.1% of votes in the French presidential election, he pledged that France would stand by America and that Washington could “count on our friendship”. He also declared that “France is back in Europe”. Such conciliatory language to partners was widely expected, but it is not clear how much France’s role will change within NATO as a result of a new occupant at the Elysee.

What is clear is that Sarkozy now has a mandate to pursue pragmatism, unlike Chirac who in the final years drew much of his dwindling popularity from a foreign policy whose tone was designed to confront a popularly despised American administration. And indeed Sarkozy’s comments during the campaign will herald a distinct change in style with respect to transatlantic and NATO relations. His 2006 visit to Washington and complimentary comments about American dynamism stem from a genuine admiration for the U.S. and key elements of its system.

But like those hoping for a Thatcherite economic overhaul in France and confronted with the realities of Sarkozy’s record, Atlanticists are bound to be disappointed. Even though he was critical of Chirac’s handling of France’s diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq War, Sarkozy steadfastly opposes the American-led invasion and supports a phased withdrawal. On April 26, he proclaimed his support for Chirac’s partial withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, and signalled his willingness to pull out the remaining 1100-strong French contingent. And one of the president-elect’s main foreign policy positions, opposition to Turkish membership in the European Union, conflicts directly with political support for a NATO ally and also the American stance on the issue.

Notwithstanding transatlantic relations, Sarkozy has taken two positions that do bring France more into line with the NATO consensus. The first is to take a less conciliatory line towards Russia than did his predecessor, including pledging support for Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership. The second is to be less tolerant of Islamic fundamentalist violence in the Middle East and more sympathetic to Israeli security. On such issues the replacement of both Schroeder as well as Chirac is key.

Indeed, Franco-German relations will be central to Sarkozy’s foreign policy. Asked about his plans for foreign trips, Sarkozy pledged to visit Berlin before Brussels or Washington. But rather than rekindle the Paris-Berlin axis of 2002, joining Angela Merkel in her attempts to improve Euro-American relations has sparked talk among pundits of a “Washington-Paris-Berlin” triangle. That kind of chatter is exaggerated, and any such coziness will have to wait at least until the American elections next year. Still, it is a far cry from four years ago.

The fact is that foreign policy was not a main theme of the election, and is not why Sarkozy was elected. French Ambassador to the U.S. Jean-David Levitte said over the weekend that the relative obscurity of foreign policy was due to a broad consensus over main goals. The domestic reforms Sarkozy championed during the campaign will take priority as he begins his presidency, making any sea-change abroad wholly unlikely. Atlanticists shouldn’t be popping any corks just yet.

Philipp E. Cornell is Editor NATO of the World Security Network Foundation.