Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sarkozy, The New Blair?

In comments to the previous post, Yan said:

What a pity to see Sarko wanting to follow his hero Tony Blair in snuggling up to Bush. ...
Do you think Sarko's approach to the US reflects French sentiment generally?

And Alain Q. remarked:

I think the change is more in form than substance.

I tend to agree with Alain Q. Nothing has yet forced Sarkozy to stake out a position opposed to the US. He appears to believe that there is little to be gained from maintaining a staunch position against past U. S. actions. Chirac had hoped to lead a coalition of the unwilling, but it never materialized. Passive resistance is not really a viable foreign policy option. Thus far, Sarkozy has signaled only that he does not wish to stand on principle. He is willing to reconcile with the U. S., but that tells us nothing about which American policies he will support and which he will oppose. A judgment will have to await a defining event. The statements made thus far on Iran don't really indicate where the two countries are likely to converge or diverge. To say that one is opposed to an Iranian nuclear weapon is cheap talk until it comes to doing something about it, and how Sarkozy perceives the risks involved in possible courses of action is not at all clear to me. We constantly hear about how much he likes America, but so did Chirac, who was fond of telling stories about his Cadillac convertible and summer working as a soda jerk at the Howard Johnson's adjacent to my alma mater (HoJo's is now a MicroCenter computer discount store--times change, as do regimes). Nostalgia for halcyon days in Cambridge did not determine Chirac's policy when push came to shove; nostalgia for jogs in Central Park and speedboating on Winnepasaukee won't determine Sarkozy's policy either.

As for "French sentiment generally," I think the most one can say is that public sentiment on foreign policy matters is extremely volatile. The French know they don't like Bush, but do they know much about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy positions, or Rudy Giuliani's? Most Americans don't either. Have they made up their mind that an Iranian nuclear weapon is intolerable? How do they view the clash between the US and Russia over missile defense in eastern Europe? What attitude do they want France to take toward China and its position on currency? These issues didn't figure prominently in the presidential campaign, so Sarkozy has a fairly free hand to jibe and tack as winds change. He needn't decide where he's headed until events force his hand.

From the Bush to Bush

It's a good thing Nicolas Sarkozy is tireless, because this past week's cock-ups by his underlings and compatriots have obliged him to fly to Chad--the bush--where he will have to endure the humiliation of begging his client, before proceeding to Washington, and Bush, where he will be lionized by people who have no idea who he is and at bottom have about as much regard for the president of France as the president of France has for the president of Chad. Hyperbole, to be sure, but an antidote is needed to the hyperbole that will surely flow from the American press this week. And from the Élysée, for that matter: David Martinon has already described the purpose of the trip to Washington as an occasion to "consacrer les retrouvailles" between France and the United States. Will the bride wear white?

Back to reality. The Chadians refer to the prison in which they're keeping their hostages--ces illuminés de l'humanitarisme--as "Guantanamo," which says a great deal about both what has become of America's image and what the Chadians feel toward the inmates. Sarko will return with at least the journalists and stewardesses; the only remaining question is whether he is carrying sufficient ransom in his baggage to persuade Déby to hand over the swashbuckling humanitarians so that they can be tried in France for "crimes on behalf of humanity," for which there is no statute of limitations. Sarkozy has tried so hard to raise Franco-African relations above the comic-opera level where French presidents have been content to leave them for years, yet his reward thus far has been only accusations of racism because his speechwriter Henri Guaino made the error of quoting Hegel (without attribution) in a few phrases describing Africans as a people without history. He deserves better than the Arche de Zoé, and I suspect that Kouchner may be among the victims of the ministerial shake-up expected in January for allowing it to happen.

As for Washington, Sarko will get to address the House and Senate, a privilege he doesn't enjoy in France because of a bizarrerie of the Constitution that the Balladur Commission wants to change. He had better keep his speech short, since it will be in French, a language which only a few years ago was verboten in Washington and still more in the precincts of Congress, to say nothing of the congressional mess hall. Since then, Congressman Ney, a descendant of Marshall Ney, by the way, has been cashiered from the House for peculation and is now presumably eating his Freedom Fries with humble pie, while I am sure that some publicity flack will arrange for Sarko to eat frites in the Capitol rotunda and pretend to be ecstatic that Americans are once again calling their fries French.

Will anything of substance take place? Perhaps Sarko's advisors will be sharp enough to encourage him to use the state of emergency in Pakistan to point out to Bush that bellicosity toward Iran may have consequences beyond Iran's borders. But his own attitude toward Iran, to say nothing of Pakistan, is hardly clear. Is France's interest more in cozying up to the United States than in evolving a more multilateral approach to relations with Islamic states? Not much is likely to emerge publicly from the dog-and-pony show of the next few days, but in private meetings the U.S. foreign policy establishment will be trying to define its approach to the après-Bush, and if Sarkozy has a vision of France's role going forward, this would be a good opportunity to speak up. Une bonne occasion de ne pas se taire, as his predecessor might have put it.