Sarkozy Kiss the Corpse

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, intrepid TAS enthusiast from across the Atlantic and perhaps the only person on Earth insane enough to enjoy Reihan’s zombie fiction, wrote the following analysis of Sarkozy’s decidedly disappointing foreign policy. Because all sane people are Francophiles, you ought to read it.

It’s unfortunately not a shocking revelation that politicians, once elected, don’t actually amount to everything they promised they would. Yet I have to say that even for someone so jaded as I can be, the difference between the promises and the reality of Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy are disheartening.

Just for the sake of disclosure, I’ll say that I am a French guy who believes his country has a special role to play in the world, that it is the depositary of a great tradition of human rights and statesmanship, and that therefore it must be an exemplary beacon of freedom around the world, a nation that understands the reality of international relations and is willing to play the game of power politics, while keeping its eyes on the long-term prize of a more just international order. A nation, in short, that is afraid neither of being moral nor of being hawkish. All grandiloquent stuff I know, but I think foreign policy should be ambitious—and if French people aren’t grandiloquent, the government actually takes our passports. It sucks.

So, how well does Nicolas Sarkozy’s admittedly brief record as the new master of French foreign policy hold up against my expectations? Quick answer? Poorly, but not quite as poorly as his predecessor’s.

A little more detailed look after the fold.

Moral leadership? What moral leadership?

The most visible way in which Nicolas Sarkozy-as-presidential-candidate distinguished himself from Jacques Chirac was by stressing France’s long-standing links to America and Israel enough to shock Paris’s chattering classes. To me however, what was most significant is the way he donned the mantle of pre-Iraq War neoconservative rhetoric, of a muscular defense of human rights everywhere.

To wit, in his victory speech on the night of the presidential election:

France will not abandon women forced to wear the burka, France will not abandon women who do not have freedom, France will be on the side of oppressed peoples. It is France’s message, France’s identity, France’s history.

I still remember standing on the Place de la Concorde with my friends watching this and getting Saint Obama-style chills up my spine because, of course, it was exactly the kind of stuff I dreamed of.

Once the dream’s over reality knocks you upside the head and it ain’t pretty: Shortly after his election, Sarkozy went on state visits to Russia and China, where he perpetuated a sad tradition of putting short term economic gains ahead of human rights. He refused to criticize the massively fraudulent parliamentary elections in Russia, or to take with him to China Rama Yade, his Human Rights Minister previously appointed with great pomp to the cabinet. Much more important was the signing of big contracts, such as sales of Airbus planes to China (one wonders by the way why a deal between a plane manufacturer and an airline should be sealed by heads of government instead of chief executives).

Now there’s an argument to be made that as President of the French Republic, Sarkozy’s duty is to his countrymen and that it is better for him to make Airbus-selling, good-paying-jobs-here-at-home-creating deals than to indulge in some ineffectual grandstanding over human rights. Isn’t it about time the French recognized that they’re a welterweight in international affairs and that they stop lecturing everyone as if anything they said ever made a difference? That’s a reasonable point but certainly it doesn’t apply to Sarkozy more than it does to Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, who was unafraid to denounce Russia’s rigged elections (even though Germany, being closer to Russia and more dependent on its energy, has more to lose by angering it), or to officially meet the Dalaï-Lama, braving the ire of Beijing, her governing coalition partners and the German business lobby, which certainly fits my definition of a good day’s work.

These cases are but examples, but they illuminate what is wrong about Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy. I could also point to Sarkozy’s support for African dictators such as Gabon’s Omar Bongo or Chad’s Idriss Déby despite one prominent advisor’s vow to “tear apart” (démanteler) the Françafrique system. I could also talk (and I will) about the whole Khadafi situation.

The point is that, where Sarkozy could have shined, he failed, by falling into the mold of a foreign policy that speaks a lofty rhetoric but refuses to back it up with actions, and belies that rhetoric every day with a short-termist defense of ill-defined interests. So yeah, that sucks.

Who wants free uranium? Free uranium over here!

If on human rights Sarkozy seems to be taking his cues straight out of the Chirac playbook, if there’s one area in which he’s innovated, it’s in his use of his country’s expertise in nuclear technology as a foreign policy bargaining tool. Just like Russia uses its natural resources and China uses, uh, truckloads of cash money to increase their clout, Nicolas Sarkozy’s France basically buys influence with nuclear power stations. Areva, the government-owned nuclear power giant, is the only company in the world that controls every step of the chain, from fuel extraction to distribution.

He seems to be handing out nuclear plants like they were croissants at a buffet breakfast. The UAE, where France got a military base in a very strategic spot in exchange for a couple of power stations, is a case in point. So is Libya, where a nuclear deal (with a few missiles and helicopters and stuff, but France selling high tech weaponry to dictators is old news) was used as ransom for the liberation of the Bulgarian nurses signed totally independently of anything else.

First of all, I should point out that civilian nuclear technology is quite different from military technology, and France doesn’t do these kinds of deals with rogue states, so nobody is suggesting that France is in any way contributing to nuclear proliferation. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

On the one hand, it’s a big bad world out there and you gotta do what you gotta do, and it makes sense for France to use what is essentially a competitive advantage to strengthen its position. It’s the good side of Sarkozy’s lack of a moral spine: a focus on pragmatism and results, a refreshing shift from Chirac’s ineffectual bloviating.

On the other hand, it seems like a high price to pay: nuclear power is the gift that keeps on giving, while alliances are shifting and fleeting. In UAE the lease on the base lasts about as long as the power plants will, but 10 years (or 10 months) from now Lybia might no longer enjoy being our friend, but they’ll still keep the lights on in Tripoli thanks to our uranium. What will we have to give them then to keep them on our side? The keys to Versailles?

So the jury’s still out on the wisdom of this strategy, but I think it’s a very often overlooked aspect of Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy, even though it’s a radical change and it seems pretty important to me.

Better than before

Even though Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy record doesn’t look good in contrast with his campaign promises, it does look better than the deplorably loserish foreign policy of Jacques Chirac. The last thing that, in my view, sets Sarkozy apart from Chirac in foreign policy is what I would call his activism. Much ink has been wasted about Mr Sarkozy being hyperactive and wanting to do everything at once. While this isn’t exactly the case, it’s certainly true that French foreign policy is much more active than during Chirac’s lethargic fin de règne.

Case in point: the EU. France had basically lost all influence in Europe in the aftermath of the rejection of the proposed EU constitutional treaty by French voters. Eurocrats and our European counterparts simply didn’t listen to Chirac because they knew he was a lame duck and were simply waiting him out. Now look at the swiftness at which, right after Sarkozy was elected, France spurred the rest of the EU countries to pass and sign a shorter, less symbolic treaty to replace the failed previous one, ending the institutional gridlock. The new treaty, by the way, has been known as the “Mini-Treaty,” then “Simplified Treaty,” then “Reform Treaty,” now “Treaty of Lisbon“—welcome to Eurospeak.

In diplomacy, in a surprising amount of cases just showing up is most of the battle, and Sarkozy shows up a lot more than Chirac. Take the appointment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the head of the International Monetary Fund. When it came time to find a replacement, traditionally appointed by Europe, even though Sarkozy wanted to appoint Strauss-Kahn, the Italians pointed that the French are over-represented in international institutions and that, they too, would like to propose a nominee. But while they were dithering about who exactly they wanted to propose, Sarkozy was already lobbying the other EU countries and clinched it before Romano Prodi could get his act together.

Bernard Kouchner, Sarkozy’s Foreign Minister and a man whom I greatly admire, was also active on lobbying for subjects important to France, like the convening of conferences over Darfur or Lebanon, issues that matter to him personally but also to the international community. None of those conferences accomplished much (but then when do they ever do?), but they kept the ball rolling and were an opportunity for France to play the important role it deserves and has progressively relinquished under French Presidents since de Gaulle.

So there you have it. Obviously foreign policy is an extremely complex thing and I’m roughly as qualified to give an exhaustive picture of French foreign policy as I am to defuse a bomb with a toothpick, but if you have to remember three things about what’s gone on since Sarkozy took office, I think these would be it: the moral deficit (I’m not yet prepared to call it bankruptcy), the uranium thing, and the burst of new activity.

The lack of moral courage of the Sarkozy administration, especially in light of his earlier rhetoric and his appointments, is deeply disenheartening. It is truly a historic opportunity missed. But there is great potential here. With more spine and more vision, a Sarkozy foreign policy could really increase France’s clout and improve the state of world affairs. Here’s to hoping he tries.