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France turns new face to US, world

President-elect Sarkozy has an ambitious foreign agenda, in addition to planned reforms at home.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2007


It took French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy about 30 minutes to change the scope of a yearlong election campaign that rarely strayed from domestic issues to reveal an ambitious foreign agenda.

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It is a France reengaging Europe, friendlier with the US, stressing human rights, and creating a "Mediterranean Union" that would help address African immigration and development issues.

"France is back in Europe," Mr. Sarkozy said at the outset of a victory speech Sunday, addressing his "European partners" after winning a clear-cut victory over Socialist Ségolène Royal.

The hard-fought election, split 53.1 to 46.9 percent with 85 percent voter turnout, appears to give a mandate to the increasingly powerful right side of the French political spectrum.

Since France voted "no" on a more unified Europe in 2005, efforts to create a stronger European Union have awaited the May 6 French election. Sarkozy plans to help the EU strengthen its institutional identity as one of his first initiatives.

For France, the departure on May 16 of outgoing President Jacques Chirac, a man directly involved in French foreign affairs since the cold war, has left questions about how a new and relatively untested generation of leaders born in the 1950s will proceed in the international arena, diplomats say.

Yet Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, outlined a foreign vision all the more striking since it played no role in the campaign: The new president wants friendlier ties with America, but chastised Washington for inaction on global warming. He advocates a "Mediterranean Union" between Europe and Africa that will speak to immigrants in France and also keep troubled Turkey engaged. And he sounded a traditional trumpet on human rights, saying France will "be on the side of the oppressed around the world, that is its history."

To be sure, most of Sarkozy's focus, as he reportedly heads to Corsica for private reflection and meetings with advisers before he takes over in 10 days, will be about delivering domestic reform at home. France holds crucial legislative elections June 10 and 17 that will determine whether the right will have a parliamentary majority.

Still, Sarkozy, known as a polymath and workaholic, has been setting up foreign ties for months, including with the US, say German foreign ministry and US sources.

A more robust US-French friendship

In the past year of deepening American troubles overseas in an era of Iraq, Washington has jettisoned the anti-French, and "old Europe" rhetoric of the early Bush administration. State Department officials openly say they are aware that America and Europe must pull together, and desire it.

Sarkozy, an Atlanticist who met President Bush at the White House last year, said that France will "always be with" America. But he added that "friendship is accepting that friends can think differently, and that a great nation like the United States should not be an obstacle to the fight against global warming, but .. should take the lead because the future of all humanity is at stake."

"Sarkozy is very relaxed in his attitude about the US, but he won't roll over and become President Bush's French poodle," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. "This is someone the Americans can work with. But the Americans shouldn't take him for granted; the world has changed."

Of course, France – like the rest of Europe – has already begun to wait for US policy, particularly on Iraq, to clarify, pending the 2008 US presidential elections.