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

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.

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.

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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.

Current French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who until January was considered a possible competitor with Sarkozy for his party's presidential nomination, is widely expected to become Sarkozy's foreign minister.

Helping to 'relaunch' the EU

Perhaps it is action on the European Union that will first occupy the attention of the new president of France. Sarkozy's team has been meeting regularly with that of chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, over "institutional reforms."

France's popular referendum in 2005 said "no" to a European constitution that many in France felt would further erode France's traditional leadership position in the ever-larger EU, which now includes 27 nations. Institutional reforms, however, offer a way forward – a "road map" – on a smaller set of changes that are still significant. This includes an individual president of the EU, not a country, as is the current approach, that has at least a 2-1/2-year term. It would also streamline decisionmaking.

"No relaunch of the EU is possible without France," says Fréderic Bozo a professor of European studies at the Sorbonne. "The French president has the key to progress, and Sarkozy will have a mandate. After the failure of the referendum in '05, French foreign relations really suffered and lost credibility and Sarkozy wants to address that."

With a mandate, Sarkozy is expected to engineer and approve changes on behalf of France, without a referendum. Sarkozy will send a team on May 15 to Berlin to work out an acceptable formula, sources say. An agreement would likely be announced on June 21, as Germany gives up its presidency, and would extend another six months, through Portugal's presidency.

Sarkozy's adamant opposition to Turkish membership in the EU was one of the strongest position's taken by any French candidate on foreign policy during the election. He declared Turkey "part of Asia-Minor" and said it should not be allowed into the Union. The question is extremely sensitive at a time when Turkey, embroiled in a debate over its secular status, is unclear about its own future after 40 years of negotiating for EU membership. Sarkozy's "Mediterranean Union" is considered a conciliatory gesture, though details are not yet known.

"It is one thing to say that Turkey isn't part of the EU," says Mr. Bozo. "It is another to stop the negotiation process. I don't think he can do that."

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urged Sarkozy not to interfere with the EU talks. "In regard to both the European Union process and the French-Turkish relations, our wish is that from now on we do not see the same statements that Sarkozy has made in election meetings in our bilateral relations," Mr. Erdogan told reporters Monday.

'We know we're behind' EU neighbors

French voters have been uneasy at the perceived decline of France's traditional clout overseas. France has traditionally been regarded as "punching above its weight" in international affairs, but has suffered setbacks over its opposition to the Iraq war, the 2005 EU vote, and its industry has not kept pace with Germany's.

Typical of the popular view in France about what Sarkozy can achieve is Pedro-Louis, an aerospace engineer from Paris who didn't want to give his last name: "I voted to reform France's culture, so that we can be strong again," he says. "When I talk with my German and English colleagues, they see France as a big, beautiful country. But we know we are now behind them. Germany has taken and integrated an entire country, the East. We need a stronger spirit of enterprise to compete. We need to be stronger in Europe, because Europe competes with itself. But France needs to be strong country in the world as well."

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