Sarkozy’s Change of Direction: Expediency or Political Principle?

By Roland Bensted

“Old Europe”. United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2003 phrase was one of the more polite, if not fully precise, American descriptions of French and German opposition to the US-UK led invasion of Iraq. It also highlighted the gap at the time between the Anglo-American attitude to military intervention more generally, and that of the French and Germans. Yet the scale of recent French intervention in Africa - notably in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire - indicates that France under President Nicolas Sarkozy has well and truly moved on from the “old Europe” tag.

From international media to ordinary French citizens, many have questioned Sarkozy’s motives for undertaking such a profound change of direction compared to that of his predecessor at the Elysée Palace, Jacques Chirac. In taking up the cause of military intervention, is Sarkozy’s foreign policy motivated by a commitment to human rights, or is it a matter of political posturing, a desperately expedient move by an unpopular President determined to arrest his declining poll ratings?

Elected President in May 2007 for a five year term, Sarkozy’s early objectives included radical economic reforms, and emphasis on national security and identity. He was also keen to mend bridges with the US. Eager to reduce the welfare budget, increase the age of retirement and make France more business-friendly, Sarkozy in many ways wanted France to become more “Anglo-Saxon”, a term that is rarely used endearingly in France. The 2007-8 banking collapse, indicative of the worst aspects of the Anglo-American model, ended any talk of fundamentally reconstituting French banking. However, measures taken to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age for claiming the full state pension from 65 to 67, have attracted much opposition, notably the mass strikes of October 2010. Many French citizens also cite high unemployment and lack of career prospects as matters of lament.

During his four years in power, French headlines have often focused on Sarkozy himself - his eventful personal life and his egoistic personality - as well as his policies. The French state under Sarkozy has also been perceived to be too cosy with some of the North African dictators. A particular embarrassment was the offer made by then French Foreign Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, to provide help to the regime of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to quell popular dissent, just three days before Ben Ali’s exit in January 2011. This had come soon after her Christmas vacation in Tunisia, during which she had also made contact with Ben Ali. The resulting scandal led to her being replaced by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. A February 2011 poll by Ifop for the newspaper Journal du Dimanche found that Sarkozy’s approval rating was only 36 per cent, with 63 per cent of respondents indicating that they were dissatisfied with their President.

Within this context, many have asked whether France’s keenness to strike against the forces of Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was an attempt to side with the people demonstrating for freedom rather than another brutal dictatorship, the opposite side to the one France had been on with regard to Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Yet the idea that France acted only out of self interest in Libya may be overly cynical. It is clear that Gaddafi was mobilising his forces near Benghazi. Many within the international community believed that his threats to slaughter his own people were indeed credible. Time was therefore against the international community and France, although more keen than the US to take military action, went through the appropriate channels, securing the proper legal authority of a UN Security Council resolution and endorsement from the African Union and Arab League. Although there remain huge uncertainties over what the goals of the Libyan intervention ought to be, France, still sensitive about its conduct in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, can claim that it played a vital role in preventing a potentially huge loss of Libyan lives.

In Cote d’Ivoire international observers, including the UN and African Union, were unanimous that Laurent Gbagbo lost the Presidential election following the second round of voting in November 2010. Yet he had refused to hand over power to the acknowledged winner, Alassane Ouattara. When French jets launched attacks against Gbagbo’s forces in April 2011, it was in collaboration with the UN and forces loyal to Ouattara. As the former colonial power, France has a more evident strategic interest in Cote d’Ivoire than in Libya. In this respect, Sarkozy faced a dilemma: support Gbagbo and be accused of siding with a tyrant, or intervene and be accused of colonialism. He chose the latter option.

With the Presidential election of April 2012 fast approaching, Sarkozy appears to be facing a difficult task to get past the Socialist Party (PS), which has not yet chosen a Presidential candidate and, more worryingly, Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN). An online poll of voting intentions conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Le Parisien between 28 February-3 March 2011 put Le Pen, more media friendly than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as the front runner.

Even if the recent French military interventions are approved by a significant number of the French people, it is not clear whether this will help Sarkozy’s 2012 re-election bid. Under threat from both the left and right, Sarkozy has often responded to domestic pressure by adopting populist positions, for example the public “debate”, initiated in November 2009, about French identity, and the recent law to ban people covering their faces in public, a measure clearly targeted at the small number of Muslim women in France who wear full-face coverings. Many have accused him of pandering to the far right by focusing on such issues. Sarkozy’s response is that debates on identity and immigration should be part of the mainstream, and not left to the extremists.

It is unclear whether recent French military interventions will boost Sarkozy’s popularity at the polls. Even if they do, he will face a huge battle to remain at the Elysée Palace beyond April 2012. Sarkozy will be able to point to clear differences in policy compared to the Chirac era. He may also be able to point to the success of interventions in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, following his role in helping bring to an end the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008. Whether French voters will think that he has acted on principle or out of expediency remains to be seen.


12 April 2011