The newish government of Nicolas Sarkozy survived its first Parliamentary no-confidence vote last week. At issue was the French President’s decision to send an extra 700 – yes, 700 – troops to Afghanistan to bolster the effort against the Taliban (though how much action they will see is questionable), and his avowed aspiration to reintegrate France into NATO’s command structure after 40 years of being semi-detached from the alliance. Sarko has courted controversy almost from day one, not least with his colorful private life; but to raise French passions to the boiling point, it seems, one has only to mention the Americans.
France’s frosty relationship with NATO dates back to the time of de Gaulle’s return to the French presidency in 1958. The old General’s response to the perceived Anglo-American dominance of the alliance was to withdraw its Mediterranean fleet from NATO control and order the creation of a nuclear “Force de frappe” to give France an independent defense capability. The split was formalized in 1966, when de Gaulle withdrew all French armed forces from NATO’s integrated command structure and demanded the immediate removal of all American troops from French soil (prompting the tart, if perhaps apocryphal, response from Lyndon Johnson, “Does that include the dead ones?”).
Not all French presidents since de Gaulle have claimed the Gaullist mantle, to be sure, but none has deviated from its basic foreign policy tenet of maintaining France’s independent voice in world affairs. French troops have served in NATO operations since, from Kosovo to Kabul, but successive administrations have shied away from reversing the General’s policy of proud detachment, in the face of domestic opposition to foreign entanglements and concerns about falling too closely in step behind US policy.
This met its apogee, of course, in Jacques Chirac’s willful defiance of the US over Iraq – a stance which, while it damaged relations, turned out to be a very smart move in domestic political terms. This was interpreted in the US as mere petulant contrariness, and Chirac was certainly well aware of the deep vein of anti-Americanism into which he was tapping; but the truth was that most of his predecessors would have done exactly the same. Although he did mend fences during the rest of his final term in office, the French diplomatic establishment clung to his vision of a truly “multipolar” world order, in which US hegemony would be balanced, both economically and strategically, by a strong EU – led by France and Germany, naturally – as well as Russia, India and China among others.
Nicolas Sarkozy is working off an entirely different rhetorical playbook. His favorite word, it seems, is “rupture” – promising a break with the past in every area of policy from industrial relations to taxation. In foreign policy, Sarkozy’s tone was markedly different from his predecessor, holding out the promise of a more co-operative stance towards the US on a host of issues, including Iraq, while using more hawkish language on Iran and Russia than Chirac would ever have done. The reaction to his election in Washington and London could best be characterized as quiet euphoria.
In office, he seems at first glance to have carried through on this early promise. It was hugely symbolic that his first two state visits were to America and Britain, doing nothing to dispel German nervousness at a potential weakening of the axis between Paris and Berlin. The new president has adopted a noticeably warmer posture towards the US, promised extra troops for the fight against the Taliban, and repeatedly held out the prospect of bringing France fully back into the NATO fold – a move whose totemic symbolism would far outweigh any practical consequences, given that they are already involved in most NATO committees and decision-making anyway. But given the tricky situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the fast diminishing political capital of the outgoing Bush administration, many French feel that he is giving too much ground too quickly.
It is in this context that domestic disquiet at Sarkozy’s rapprochement with the US turned, last week, into the first open show of defiance. The vote itself was a formality, thanks to the ruling UMP’s healthy majority, but it showed his domestic critics breaking cover for the first time. The opposition was, predictably enough, led by the Socialists, but bolstered – after a most welcome period of silence – by the unctuous Dominique de Villepin, who made his name as Chirac’s surrender flunky in the run-up to the Iraq war. “Not only is the return of France to NATO not in our country’s interests, but I also think it’s dangerous,” he said. “We will lose space to maneuver, space to be independent”, as well as “an ability to act alone”. NATO, after all, “is an organization under American domination”.
De Villepin’s classically Gaullist boilerplate merely echoes the widely-held conviction that France’s “independence” needs constantly to be reasserted if it is to be protected. If you seek the alternative, they warn sternly, you have only to look across the Channel, where foreign policy is dictated, so any Frenchman will tell you, by the Americans. And Sarkozy’s attempts to shift French attitudes has set off a sharp debate in the country about the perils of “Atlanticism”, which is code for the afore-mentioned “American domination”.
But is there really that much for the ancien régime to be concerned about? If you look at French actions since the change of leadership, as opposed to words, what you see can hardly be termed a rupture with the past. Even the pre-2003 Chirac used to speak of rejoining the NATO command structure; and on Iran, Iraq, Israel, China and issues like trade and climate change, you’d struggle to slip a Gitanes paper between Sarkozy’s policies and those of the previous administration. Indeed, in their diplomatic contacts with Syria and insistence on including Hezbollah in Lebanese constitutional talks, not to mention hostility to Turkish entry into the EU, you could just as well argue that French policy has developed over the past year in ways that are not at all in tune with thinking in Washington.
So it may take some time for the new-found warmth between France and the US (and Britain) to manifest itself in more concrete ways, not least because there is little mileage for any politician on either side being seen to be too friendly with the other. Sitting in on a few extra NATO committee meetings, or sending a few hundred soldiers to train Afghan police, is not going to change the course of history. Anyone who knows the French, though, appreciates that symbolism is hugely important. Nicolas Sarkozy is going to ruffle a few more feathers before he is done, but given the outdated and arrogant attitudes that infect much of the French political elite, that can only be a good thing.
Mr. Eugenides is a Scottish blogger.