European Affairs

French-U.S. Relations: Sarkozy Has a Fresh Take     Print Email
Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas SarkozyIt was a highly unusual event when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the main conservative candidate to be the next president of France, came calling in Washington in September. Ahead of elections next May, his trip was bound to be viewed by many French voters as confirmation that Sarkozy is more strongly (and more openly) pro- American than his rivals, including prominent leaders in his own neo-Gaullist party, notably incumbent President Jacques Chirac, whom Sarkozy hopes to succeed.

In Washington, Sarkozy took the bull by the horns. He chose to publicly explain his seemingly instinctive “Atlanticist” tilt (code in Paris for “pro-American”) while laying out what he considers reasonable expectations about U.S. behavior toward France – basically, a little respect in public and, in private, good cooperation. It was a significant Transatlantic overture from the oldest and often most nettlesome U.S. ally.


Pointing up his apparent disagreement with much French diplomacy since the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Sarkozy said: “I believe our disagreements have often been legitimate, [but] it is not appropriate to try and embarrass one’s allies or give the impression of gloating over their difficulties.” The thrust of this approach could hint at interest on the part of Sarkozy in seeking a new conceptual framework for France’s approach to relations with the United States, with both sides seeking to play down their divergences rather than magnify them for possible domestic political gain.

In his speech, Sarkozy readily acknowledged a unique role for U.S. leadership, saying: “A weak America, an entangled America, is a problem for the entire free world.” And he frankly acknowledged the damage done by short-sighted French anti-Americanism. “France, especially its elites, has sometimes in recent years been guilty of strident hostility to the United States that was misplaced, irrational and dangerous for succeeding in common Transatlantic goals,” he said.

At the same time, he urged U.S. leaders to grasp the advantages of taking more account of France’s positions, not only to keep an important Transatlantic ally by the side of the U.S. but also to work out more sustainable approaches against common threats. A good example of this was his tough stance against Iran, coupled with a call for the creation of an internationally-managed supply of uranium fuel for electricity generation in countries such as Iran that the international community does not want to trust with its own national uranium-enrichment program.

In calling for a more constructive approach to bilateral U.S.-French relations, Sarkozy matched his bluntness about French shortcomings with a challenge to Americans to face up to contradictions in U.S. attitudes toward France and the European Union. For example, he asked, at a time when Americans are wringing their hands about the EU’s problems integrating Muslim minorities, why do U.S. officials simultaneously deliver public lectures to Europeans about their duty to accept Turkey as a new EU member state?

The Sarkozy analysis of the U.S.-French relationship was perhaps best encapsulated by an ironic mistake in translation during his remarks when he told his audience, as translated by an interpreter, that France and America are two countries “divided by common values.” This phrase was corrected in the published version to depict the two countries as “united by common values.” But the mistaken version – perhaps a Freudian slip? – may contain a kernel of truth in the sense that Americans and French people may well agree on the values cherished by the West and yet disagree on how to put them into practice – all the more violently because each nation expects the other to share its view. In his speech, Sarkozy seemed to take the view that it was up to elites in both nations to prevent such misunderstandings from spilling political blood in the Transatlantic water. “Vive la difference,’’ he seemed to say, “but let’s keep the fireworks in bounds.”

Many passages emerged spontaneously as he departed from his prepared text. Did his speech provide a blueprint for a more effective bilateral relationship? Time will tell, presumably starting two years hence when a new French president will start working with a new U.S. president.

Some key passages are excerpted below (from the French government’s official translation of the Sarkozy speech).

I am going to undertake a very difficult exercise: speaking as frankly as possible for this to be interesting while taking as few risks as possible seven and a half months before the French elections. How to be both frank and diplomatic? That’s what my speech is all about... I want to speak to you frankly, as one does with one’s family members.

I am told that France receives extensive coverage in the American press. One might say that this coverage is rarely positive. But I’d like to make a confession: The United States, alas, is treated the same way in the French press. It’s pointless, however, to analyze what French and American reporters write about our respective countries. I think there’s a disconnect between what they say and what our elites experience [on the one hand] and what [on the other hand] the French people feel deep in their hearts about the American people – and vice-versa.

The truth is that the French listen to Madonna, just as they used to love listening to Elvis and Sinatra; they go to the movies to see Miami Vice and enjoy watching We Maltese Falcon or Schindler’s List for a second or third time. They read James Ellroy and re-read Hemingway. That’s the truth. The young people wear American jeans and love American burgers and pizza. And nothing makes the French prouder than seeing a French actor in an American film. When they talk about a French actor, it means something when they say “he made it in Hollywood.” As soon as a French musician is successful, he explains how he worked with the greatest musicians across the Atlantic and, preferably, recorded in the United States. And all French parents dream of sending their child to an American university. So tell me: If that’s the dream of French families, how can the French detest the United States?

For me, the virulence of the commentaries in the press and by the French elites reflects a certain envy, not to say jealousy, of your brilliant success. I love my country deeply and no one can claim I don’t want the best for it. But the United States has been successful on so many fronts: It’s the world’s leading economic, monetary and military power. Your economy is flourishing, your intellectual life is rich, and research in the U.S. is structured in such a way that the world’s best researchers work at your universities. And once they’ve worked at those universities, they quickly turn into American patriots. This very fact stands as proof that the model of American integration is as effective as ever, since more than half of America’s Nobel Prize laureates are immigrants. As for the arts, whether we’re talking about music, film or the performing arts, the popular entertainment almost all of us love doesn’t preclude original, demanding, deeply modern artistic creations that influence contemporary art worldwide. I’m thinking in particular of contemporary art, whose world capital has long been New York. Let me tell you, and make things even worse for myself, that I appreciate the particularly intelligent system of tax incentives that ensures not only that you attract money from all over the world, but that you also have the good grace to invest it in modern art....

…I can tell you that even during the worst days of this political dispute [about the Iraq war], our intelligence services were working together on a daily basis. There were unpleasant articles coming out on both sides of the Atlantic and yet every day, several times a day, the French and American intelligence services were working together. Our two ambassadors [the audience included the French ambassador to the United States and the U.S. ambassador to France] will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m well placed to say it, as I was already the Interior Minister at that time. I was stunned to see the violent criticisms on both sides that in no way corresponded to the level of trust shown by our daily work. I don’t want to dismiss these problems, and the truth I’m telling you about the closeness of our work doesn’t change the fact that I clearly recall the disagreeable articles on both sides of the Atlantic. Those of us who were working together at the time would wonder “where does this public violence come from?” while in private, professionally speaking, we were working so well. I would even say that our cooperation [on intelligence] was impeccable, which makes sense given that we have the same adversaries. Bin Laden targeted New York but do you think that as Interior Minister for four years, I’m not well aware of the fact that he might just as well have targeted Paris?

My dedication to our relationship with America is well known and has earned me substantial criticism in France. But let me tell you something, I’m not a coward. I embrace that friendship, I’m proud of the friendship between France and the U.S. and I proclaim it gladly. Let’s not be afraid to say that relations between France and the U.S. are often difficult. It has always seemed to me that our disagreements have been secondary compared with what we share. Because the paradox is that our two people are united by common values. Freedom? We have exactly the same idea. Universalism? The United States and France both think that their values are so strong that it’s their vocation to nurture the entire world. Democracy? The same. Human rights? The same analysis. And basically we’re so complex and so passionate because we resemble each other so much. So we detest each other at the same time that we admire one another.

Can we expect anything positive to come from such complex relations? I think we can. I believe that this universalism that we share should strengthen and unite us rather than divide us. We’re said to be incompatible rivals. I don’t share that view. Our common vision should unite us to work for a world of peace, tolerance and security. Who here can tell me that two of us, the United States and France, are too many to ensure world peace, security and stability? So much the better that France holds an autonomous position vis-à-vis the U.S.; they are complementary and it’s often necessary! There’s no future in the opposition between you and us....

… The European political union is an ally for the United States. The United States must accept a strong political Europe because it needs it… Until 1989, Europe was divided in two and, in the face of the Soviet Union of the time, we together were in the camp of freedom.

Today the United States must not, cannot worry about the next step the Europeans want to take: establishing a European political union with strength and influence on the international scene. Make no mistake: Europe does not want to be an adversary of America. It is unthinkable for Europe to forge its identity in opposition to the United States, or anyone else for that matter. Whether or not you believe in the concept of civilization, it is obvious that the bonds between Europe and the United States are unique and irreplaceable. And Europe is such a strong idea that it doesn’t need to build itself in opposition to any nation in the world. Europe is an idea of peace and prosperity. Europe was not conceived to be against the United States, to be a rival of the United States.

It is in the U.S. interest for this political Europe to be coherent and governable. In the crises you have to manage today, it’s a problem for the United States if Europe isn’t powerful enough. That is why I am vigorously opposed to the idea of an endlessly expanded Europe, a Europe without borders and thus without identity. In this regard, last year’s rejection of the European Constitution should satisfy no one, because it considerably delays the emergence of the European Union as a responsible player on the international scene....

… I have often been asked about the place of Muslims in France, because of concern in the United States. My dear friends, let’s be consistent. What’s the point of worrying about our ability to integrate Muslims in France or in Europe if at the same time, and just as forcefully, the United States asks us to accept Turkey in Europe? Even if you consider that we have a problem with Islam, in which case, you have to give us time to find the ways and means to create a European Islam and reject an Islam in Europe. But don’t then give equal support to the integration of a country like Turkey with 75 million inhabitants. Consistency is part of the relations between Europe and the United States.

As Interior Minister for several years, I am however all too aware of the new threats facing our democracies. Terrorists have attacked New York, London, Madrid and Tel Aviv, but also Amman, Algiers, Cairo, Nairobi and Jakarta. I am perfectly aware of the fact that Paris, which was a victim 11 years ago, could become one again today. The French secret services have described the threat to France as high and permanent. This ideology of hatred for democracy, freedom, modernity and equality between men and women makes no distinction, establishes no hierarchy among its enemies. For the enemies of freedom, we are all in the same camp. To ignore this danger would be madness. The prospect of a new attack, this time with chemical or even nuclear weapons, can be averted only by strengthening our cooperation in the intelligence arena. In a few minutes, I will have lunch with the Secretary of Homeland Security. As I said, I am well positioned to stress that our collaboration is exemplary, and from this standpoint, there’s not a moment’s delay in the transmission of intelligence between America and France.

Of course, the major strategic crisis we are facing today is the question of Iranian nuclear power. France’s position is clear and unambiguous: Under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Iran – and I am weighing my words – does not have the right to try and acquire a nuclear weapon, although the Iranians do have the sovereign right to acquire civilian nuclear capability. But everybody knows that there are too many suspicions about Teheran’s real intentions. It’s a risk we cannot take....

…The debate on the Iranian nuclear program, taken up by other countries that are themselves considering uranium enrichment programs, must prompt the international community to take strong action on the world nuclear market…I am convinced that this energy source (I mean uranium) will continue to represent a major solution for the future when we are faced with a shortage of fossil fuel. So I would like to make a proposal: Why not create a “world bank” for nuclear fuel under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency? The nuclear nations would contribute to it financially or in kind, and it would guarantee shipments of civilian nuclear fuel as well as the reprocessing of fissile materials to all nations that desire to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes while naturally renouncing the military nuclear option. It seems to me that in this way, the international community, represented by the IAEA, would offer all the guarantees of secure access to the benefits of nuclear energy without the risk of it being hijacked for military ends. Moreover it deprives certain potential proliferating nations of the pretext – and it is a pretext – that they have the right to civilian nuclear energy and energy independence. Since there’s a debate, let’s guarantee all the countries in the world access, through an international agency, to nuclear materials to develop a civilian nuclear program. And at the same time, we would be guaranteed that such civilian nuclear programs would not be [seized] for nuclear purposes....

In today’s world, our actions take place under the informed and curious eye of world public opinion. Because of this, we can no longer escape our moral duty to promote our democratic values. With the advent of globalization, it’s a truism that the world has become a village. But because we’re informed of everything so quickly, I want to stress that silence equals guilt. Silence can be explained and excused by ignorance. Silence is not acceptable when you know… [and] in today’s world, we know everything in real time. In the past, you found out in the end, but there was a time lag between the event and the knowledge of that event. gat lag could be months or years. Today it’s a matter of hours. So the consequence of globalization is that silence has become unacceptable....

… It is therefore our duty to work together to try and put an end to the conflicts that inflame the powder keg of the Middle East. We cannot allow ourselves to remain impotent in the face of rising tensions and the aggressiveness of certain regional forces. And our experience of the last few months shows us that when we French and Americans work together – yes, together – we are effective. I don’t want to compare France to the United States of America; I simply note that when we oppose one another, we are less effective. And when we stand together, as the Lebanon crisis showed… we are more effective....

[Today I unreservedly support President Chirac’s decision to send 2,000 soldiers to Lebanon to serve in UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon]. The Israeli intervention in Lebanon may be considered clumsy and disproportionate. [But] I want to say how close I feel to Israel… I am a friend of Israel [and] I want to say that inaction does not suit it.

The truth is that there was just one aggressor in this conflict and that aggressor has a name: Hezbollah. Israel had the right – I would even say the duty – to defend itself and its citizens. It was Hezbollah that decided to take the Lebanese people hostage in an adventure that I can only call and consider senseless. [But] let’s be clear: It is in Israel’s interest to act proportionately. Even though it is the victim, it must do everything it can to avoid seeming like an aggressor. And all of Israel’s friends are telling it frankly: “We are on your side, but react appropriately, not disproportionately.”

~

I hope you’ve understood that for me, this journey to the United States wasn’t just a journey like any other.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.