Main party candidates in the French presidential election are saying little about foreign policy, especially the most important issues — Iraq and Palestine. And they don’t much mention European affairs either. External policies might not win elections, but they can lose them.
For France’s former foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, foreign policy is not a luxury but a necessity, more important to France now than ever before. His latest essay (1) clearly identifies many issues, some of them political time-bombs, on which the next French government, like other national governments, will have to take a position. He emphasises both the spiral of violence and the potential for a “clash of civilisations” (2).
Significantly, the election manifestos of France’s presidential candidates pay scant attention to foreign and defence policy, or to European affairs. These are closely linked, because national foreign policies are sometimes coordinated at European level, and the European Commission has its own independent representation in more than 100 countries. The common commercial and agricultural policies, an exclusive EU preserve for decades, play a part in member states’ political and diplomatic negotiations with countries elsewhere. But they raise separate issues because the EU is primarily concerned with internal affairs. The 27 member states have already lost the economic leverage of monetary and budget policies. Taxation, still theoretically a matter for member states, is in fact being standardised and reduced as a result of intra-community competition. Almost all national activities are governed by the 80,000 pages of the acquis communautaire, comprising all the primary and secondary community legislation and case-law.
Europe should logically figure prominently in all the French election manifestos because national activities are now confined to the few remaining areas not covered by common policies. Many of the measures that the candidates propose will be effectively null and void unless the common policies are reviewed and the terms of the treaties renegotiated.
One of the measures suggested by candidates who voted for the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, which was rejected on 29 May 2005, was a proposal from Nicolas Sarkozy (Union pour un mouvement populaire, UMP) for a ban on fiscal dumping (3). This idea was taken up by François Bayrou (Union pour la démocratie française, UDF), who is in favour of harmonising European taxation. Other measures include the suggestion from the Greens and their candidate, Dominique Voynet, that access to the European market should be reserved for goods and services that meet International Labour Organisation standards of production and transport. There is also Measure 89 of the 100 in the presidential pact published by Ségolène Royal (Parti socialiste, PS), which is to incorporate the aims of growth and employment into the charter of the European Central Bank (ECB). Voynet recommends that the independence of the ECB should be reviewed.
What about Europe?
These measures would have been rendered impossible had the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe been accepted. They all have implications for many of the economic and social policies recommended by the candidates concerned. Nobody has said what would happen if, as is highly likely, the measures were not adopted by the other 26 member states.
These candidates, like most of the others, have little to say on this important topic or on their foreign policy if they were elected. They mostly stick to generalities, enlivened with an occasional snippet of geostrategic vision. It is no accident that the most elaborate and numerous proposals are produced by candidates with no chance of getting in: Olivier Besancenot (Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, LCR), José Bové (independent anti-globalist) and Marie-George Buffet (Parti communiste français, PCF). These are the only candidates (4) to recommend that France should leave Nato and that it should be wound up. Royal merely calls for resistance to the constant temptation to extend Nato’s sphere of action and field of operations.
The main parties’ presidential candidates usually confine themselves to general pronouncements on points of principle, but they cannot avoid occasional detailed statements on the three great issues of the day: relations with the United States, conflicts in the Middle East and the French presence in Africa.
The transatlantic link is an extremely sensitive issue, especially since the debacle in Iraq and the Democrats’ victory in the US mid-term elections in November. It would seem from the candidates’ manifestos and statements that any tendency towards a link, or at least any open expression of it, is now taboo across the entire political spectrum. The question did not arise for candidates to the left of left or for Philippe de Villiers (Mouvement pour la France), and Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front national). The Greens and Voynet do not mention it in their manifesto but they cannot be suspected of any fellow-feeling for President George Bush’s US since it is the antithesis of a model for the ecological movement.
The positions of Bayrou, Royal and Sarkozy were more predictable. Bayrou and the PS condemned the invasion of Iraq at the time. The election campaign has given them an opportunity to renew their criticisms. Bayrou explains that he approved the position taken by the president, Jacques Chirac, and defended by Dominique de Villepin. France was not being arrogant, it was being true to itself.
Royal also took a positive view of Chirac’s policy. She disagreed with the position taken by a rival candidate for the PS party ticket, the former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is critical of the style of French diplomacy but is still unsure where he stands himself. Writing in the review Le Meilleur des mondes (a product of pro-US intellectuals who support the war in Iraq, such as the philosopher André Glucksmann), Strauss-Kahn calmly said he was neither pro-Chirac nor pro-Tony Blair. He did not care for Chirac’s sterile arrogance or Blair’s servile obedience (5).
Arrogance is the code word used on both sides of the Atlantic by critics of the French position on Iraq and also by the UMP candidate, Sarkozy, who declared in the same issue of the review that he cannot deal with an arrogant France. On 12 September 2006 he visited Washington; as a token of the humility he hopes to inspire in French foreign policy, he confessed that France had not been entirely blameless in its relations with the US. He was rewarded with a photograph of himself standing side by side with Bush.
Sarkozy soon realised the awful mistake he had made in openly siding with Bush and appearing to condone his policy. A similar mistake had already contributed to the defeat of the Spanish prime minister, José Maria Aznar, in the March 2004 elections, and will soon be responsible for Blair’s ignominious departure from 10 Downing Street. Sarkozy is now known as “the American”, a cross he has to bear as he struggles to correct his image. On 28 February he gave a speech in which he said he wanted a free France and a free Europe, and asked “our American friends” to leave us free, adding that “friendship is not submission”. Was he saying what he really thought in September 2006 or in February 2007?
On the situation in Palestine, the three leading candidates have not deviated from the official position, nor have they adopted it. Bayrou has said nothing. Sarkozy has given a few subtle hints — we should not agree to all of Israel’s demands (this is a marginal change in his reputation for unconditional support for Israel and has been seen as such in Jerusalem). He also notes that the first journey he made as UMP leader was to Israel to meet Ariel Sharon (6).
Royal’s contradictory statements when she visited Israel/Palestine aroused mixed feelings, since she appeared to support the construction of the separation wall yet also received friendly comments from the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Measure number 92 of her presidential pact — “Launch with our European partners an initiative for an international peace and security conference on the Middle East” — is vague and depends so much on the goodwill of other stakeholders that it is unimpeachable. There is no mention of the legal basis on which the conference is to be convened. (Only Bové and Buffet say that the conference should be held under UN auspices, aim to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, with the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, and recognise a right of return for refugees on terms to be renegotiated. This does no more than restate the terms of the UN resolutions.)
In this regard, Royal — whatever her personal views, if indeed she has any — is obliged to take account of the strong pro-Israel tendency in the party leadership. This is expressed in coded form through critical references to “France’s Arabist policy” — meaning insufficiently pro-Israel. It is no surprise that Strauss-Kahn has attacked this policy in Le Meilleur des mondes.
On Iran, opinions — if any — are only ostensibly divided. Bayrou considers that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be tantamount to a re-run of Munich; he is in favour of taking a firm line but it is not clear how far he would be prepared to go. Sarkozy considers that military intervention would be pointless, given the impact of economic sanctions on Tehran, but he would not necessarily describe it as dangerous. Royal has not taken back her embarrassing statement, contrary to international law, that the regime should not even be allowed to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Nobody knows what a government headed by any of the candidates would do if the US and/or Israel were to decide on military intervention.
All the contenders of every political colour have at least one thing in common: they all agree there must be an end to “Françafrique”, the French president’s special personal relationship with African leaders, respectable or not, and the ramifications of that in networks going back to the 1960s and managed under successive presidents by Jacques Foccart, Charles Pasqua and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand. This is a regional example of one of Chirac’s three diplomatic principles, which have been identified by Hubert Védrine: human rights as the first criterion for external intervention; the importance of Europe; and the transatlantic link (7).
The result of the referendum on 29 May 2005 and the fiasco in Iraq have disqualified the latter two, at least for the time being. But a pro-human rights stand will be a force in France, no matter who is elected, and will determine French attitudes towards China, Russia, the Arab world and Africa. We have a foretaste of this in the pact on Darfur, which most of the candidates have signed.
In the absence of any global vision of the changing balance of power and the scope it leaves for the defence of vital national interests (which is now a politically incorrect term of opprobrium (8)), the defence of human rights has the merit of providing a simple, even simplistic, reference point.