Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The "American" President of France.

Yesterday, a colleague of mine - a fellow teacher - lamented in the staffroom:
“That’s it. Now, it’s going to be the American way of life in France!!”


The reason of course is that the new president elect of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has never been shy of his admiration for America – particularly America's strong work ethic and its belief in upward mobility (and for a few of America’s cultural icons such as Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone). He even had his picture taken with President Bush – something a bit risqué before a presidential campaign which was used by opponents to label him as an American lap dog.

His attitude and words are certainly a break from the usual rhetoric of the French elite, either on the right (think of De Gaulle or Chirac) or on the left. [It must be noted that anti-Americanism is not necessarily so prevalent among the French people.]

On the left, Sarkozy has been accused of being "an American neo-conservative with a French passport." Ségolène Royal, his socialist opponent, made it clear she “would never kneel before Bush (a way to suggest Sarkozy would of course). After the debate last week, she also said Sarkozy was imitating Bush's phony compassionate conservatism.

One thing is certain, Sarkozy’s style is not unlike that of Bush: unapologetic, brash, tough-talking and proud of it. And expectedly, the White House and Downing Street were pretty relieved to congratulate Sarkozy and not Royal. Tony Blair (often referred in this country as “Bush’s poodle” even made a congratulation video in French).

So is Sarkozy’s Bush’s new poodle? Is France on the brink of becoming the Troyan Horse of the U.S. in Europe? Will the French become American? Hardly.

True, Sarkozy emphasized strong ties with the U.S. in his acceptance speech:

"I want to launch an appeal to our American friends to tell them that they can count on our friendship, which was forged in the tragedies of history that we have faced together. I want to tell them that France will always be by their side when they need her.”

But he also quickly added:

“But I want to tell them, as well, that friendship is accepting that one's friends can think differently and that a great nation like the United States has the duty to not obstruct the fight against global warming but on the contrary to take the lead in this struggle because what is at stake is the future of all humanity."

At this point, it must be remembered that Sarkozy was primarily elected on a domestic platform: economic reforms and law and order were the major issues.

Now of course, his views of economic reforms are similar to what would be expected of Anglo-saxon conservative politicians: lower taxes, looser employment rules and less importance given to trade unions and he is also likely to agree with Britain and the US on a number of financial issues: accounting standards, banking regulations, air travel, to name a few.

But by underlining one of the major differences between his (intended) policy and that of George Bush when it comes to the environment, Sarkozy has also been very careful to avoid any sense of acquiescence.

In fact, no one is quite certain yet of what he has in mind for foreign policy (traditionally the domain of the president) because very little was said during the campaign but if the style is likely to change, it remains to be seen whether content will vary so much.

Sarkozy opposed the way France tried to block the invasion of Iraq but was against the war. He has also criticized what he calls French arrogance on the world stage but has shown great admiration for De Gaulle.

He has certainly emphasized his belief in a more active role of France in Europe, particularly when it comes to resolving the institutional question and consolidating a political Europe. He also seems to be against further eastward expansion of the EU but the clearest point he made when it comes to foreign policy is his refusal to see Turkey enter the E.U, a great potential source of disagreement with the White House.

On other issues, Sarkozy tends to lean towards Washington and away from Moscow (on the topic of Iran for instance):

"If I become president I will fight on two fronts: first, sanctions against the Iranian regime; secondly, for the unity of the international community, we need the Russians and Chinese to apply the sanctions," Sarkozy said during the election campaign.

As to whether France is going to live “the American way”, this may be the perception of some but it is absolutely irrelevant. First, what is the “American way”? Most of those who fear it have a very dogmatic view based on partial knowledge (sometimes highly influenced by American television shows). Second, one should not confused economics with culture. A more liberal economy (whether you support it or not) does not necessarily equal Americanization.

Last but not least, the U.S. has in fact become the pretext for a very French ideological war which has actually more to do with internal division than with the reality of American influence on France.

To conclude, I'd say that it is likely that France and the U.S. will remain both friends and rivals.

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