A campaign to reshape France

As the presidential race enters its final weeks, both candidates and international observers see France reclaiming its global role and relevance.

For proud France, the past five years weren't the best of times. Since it said no to the Iraq war in 2003 and no to Europe in 2005, France has been seen – particularly in Washington – as less relevant.

France itself has been in a kind of funk, mired in a discourse of self-criticism and doubt about the future, particularly since the fall of 2005 when three weeks of rioting in the Paris suburbs resulted in a declared "state of emergency."

But as the presidential campaign heats up ahead of first-round elections April 22, new views of France's role, relevance, and identity have started to emerge – not just at home, but abroad.

"France is relevant because of its holdings – NATO, influence in EU, the Contact Group [on the Balkans], they have nuclear power, they are on the [UN] Security Council," says Kurt Volker, US deputy secretary of State for Europe. "They are one of two or three countries that have real global power projection. But they are not playing in the first tier. I think [front-runner Nicolas] Sarkozy wants to change that."

As Mr. Sarkozy and his fellow candidates fight out contending visions of a French future, it seems clear that Paris, along with Berlin, will be at the heart of any debate about what Europe should or will become. Despite a rigorous push by Angela Merkel of Germany to create a new Europe, the shape of the EU is on hold until the final round of the French elections, May 6.

"Paris and Berlin have the responsibility to define what Europe will be," offers Bernhard Kampmann, a German diplomat in Paris. "Without a French decision to want Europe, it will not be possible."

And internationally, as the Iraq war remains unresolved and the US develops a more multilateral vision on resolving conflicts, a pause in the "decline of France" rhetoric may be in order, say experts.

"When it comes to [US] allies with compatible views, partners with similar views on international sovereignty and law, it's hard to find anyone outside Europe," says Guillaume Parmentier at the Center for America and Transatlantic Relations in Paris. "Where are the Americans going to find friends, allies, partners, in this realm?"

For many reasons, including its extensive diplomatic and cultural networks, and its active though quiet cooperation on international security, France brings more to the table than it may have been credited with, experts say.

While France has not participated in the Iraq war, France hosts one of the largest counterterrorism operations in Europe. Cofounded by the CIA and French intelligence services in 2002, the "Alliance Base" program in Paris – along with other French police, security, and judicial agencies – works with American intelligence services on a daily basis.

The French also take one of the toughest stands globally on nonproliferation in North Korea and Iran, earning high marks even from John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN.

Then there is the capability of France's military, which has significant links with US forces. While many nations talk a tough international game, the French are able and willing to put boots on the ground in ways that other nations cannot.

Currently, France deploys some 12,000 troops abroad. They are in Afghanistan, in the lead position in Lebanon, and are deployed in Ivory Coast and a half-dozen other African states. (Germany, by contrast, has been unable to deploy significant military assets, for both historical and constitutional reasons.) Last month, as rumors of a spring offensive in Afghanistan by the Taliban began to surface, Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asia, came to Paris for talks.

Strong cultural clout

While France's political and economic clout in the African world is arguably diminished, its cultural clout there remains strong.

France also has a unique standing in the Muslim world. President Chirac's perceived obstinacy on Iraq may have cost France greatly in the international arena. Yet his stand also earned France widespread points on the Muslim street. How and whether this translates into leverage remains unclear.

Still, "The French are important potential allies on the Middle East, on Syria and Iran," argues Axel Krause, a political commentator in Paris. "The French have more credibility in the Mideast than any other European power, by far, and at some point this could be terribly important for US foreign policy. Their clout in the Arab world far outweighs the British."

Wanted: Leader of a proud nation

Internationally, France has long "punched above its weight," as the saying goes. After World War II, Charles de Gaulle took great pains to push France to a leadership position beyond its capacity.

Yet the dramatic French "no" on Iraq marked a turning point, experts agree. The US spent three years blocking French initiatives. The US House cafeteria served up "freedom fries." Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke disparagingly of "Old Europe."

France, indeed, didn't have the strength to fight back. Then, a 2005 referendum in which France said no to the European constitution further threw its relevance into question. France had traditionally held special influence through its ability to lead Europe. But the EU "no" curtailed its role, and Germany began to develop greater economic depth through its relations with Eastern European states that became manufacturing centers.

The combination of Iraq, the EU referendum, and the rioting in 2005 led to a discourse of self-criticism and doubt about the future.

This "malaise" has become a major topic in the presidential campaign, which has in recent weeks shifted from its original focus on economic recovery and jobs toward symbols of patriotism and the question of French identity – with the president's role as defender of a proud nation at a time of social uncertainty.

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