Thursday, February 1, 2007

The French Election: Who Cares?

In case you're wondering why the French election matters for America, it boils down to the kind of multi-lateral coalitions we'll need to build if we're going to start re-stabilizing the Middle East. France probably has more credibility among the Arab states, and especially the Arab street, than any Western power, mainly because it is (accurately) perceived as not having a pro-Israel bias. Its refusal to endorse the Iraq War only enhanced that reputation. And while relations have been complicated and sometimes strained in the post-colonial era, you can't underestimate the influence and savoir faire that comes from upwards of a century of colonial rule.

As a result, France will be essential to any resolution of the crisis in Lebanon, and their involvement in the Quartet will legitimize the kinds of pressure that can be brought to bear on the Israelis and Palestinians to get back to serious negotiations. As for Iraq, don't be surprised if the English begin to feel some serious war fatigue in the near future, especially if America continues trying to provoke a shooting war with Iran. Which means that we might soon be essentially going it alone over there. Depending on how much humble pie we're willing to eat, and how many oil contracts we're willing to part with, introducing a French diplomatic role could add some legitimacy and dynamism to any endgame dealmaking.

So with that in mind, how do the candidates stack up? Sarkozy is the closest to a hardliner. He's a law & order type who strongly supports the War on Terror. He criticicized French "obstructionism" during the run-up to the Iraq War, although he's since modulated his position. And he's the most openly pro-American, and pro-Israeli, of the candidates.

Ségolène Royal's foreign policy stance is more strongly rooted in a European vision. She's described the invasion of Iraq as a catastrophe, but in doing so, made a point of distinguishing between the Bush administration and the United States. She's called for the restoration of European aid to the Palestinian Authority under Hamas, and was a vocal critic of America and Israel during the aerial bombardment of Southern Lebanon. At the same time, she's a firm opponent of a nuclear Iran, going so far as to call even a civilian capability unacceptable. Her foreign policy footing is perhaps less sure than that of her opponents, but she's far from a pushover.

Finally among the major candidates, there's François Bayrou. He, too, is a deeply rooted European, who advocates a unified EU foreign policy. He was firmly opposed to the Iraq War, although his reasoning had as much to do with the precedent it set for dealing with rogue states in general as it did with the Iraq dossier in particular. His position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nuanced and balanced. And he's opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran, while accepting a civilian capability.

Assuming that American policy eventually shifts back in line with American and world opinion, I think that either Royal or Bayrou would, on paper, be the best partner for working towards peace and stability in the region. Still there's something about Sarkozy's dynamism that I find appealing. And despite his reputation for being provocative and reckless, he's known as an effective negotiator. If he does end up being a voice of moderation, his opinion might carry more weight with America and Israel, coming from a friend, than the same opinion coming from Royal or Bayrou.

Tomorrow: some of the issues on the French domestic scene that are driving the campaign.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La Presidentielle   

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