Sarkozy vs. Chirac: Changes in foreign policy

28th August 2007, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his first major foreign policy speech Monday to spell out his differences with his predecessor Jacques Chirac, casting himself as a "friend of Israel" and taking a tougher line on Russia and China.

PARIS (AP) – While Sarkozy openly admires the United States, he said Chirac was right in opposing the Iraq war, which Sarkozy continues to call a mistake.

And bombing Iran, Sarkozy added, would be "catastrophic."

Sarkozy took over from fellow conservative Chirac in May pledging to boost France's international stature. The energetic new leader quickly scored a few high-profile diplomatic coups, such as helping secure the release of six medics held in a Libyan prison for nine years on charges of deliberately infecting children with AIDS.

Yet the sweeping diplomatic agenda he outlined for France under his watch was relatively modest, even scaled-back. He proposed, for example, a committee of great minds to reflect on the future of the European Union – an unassuming proposal for the EU, which Sarkozy nonetheless said was France's "absolute priority."

And though Sarkozy has in the past vowed to halt Turkey's bid for membership in the EU, he softened that stance Monday, saying he would not oppose new negotiations but that they should also include discussion of a weaker alliance between Turkey and the EU.

The lesson: Though the ambitious Sarkozy soared through his first three months in office with his popularity rating around 70 percent, he cannot revolutionize diplomacy overnight.

"A few months after taking the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy is realizing that he has limited room for maneuvering," said Philippe Moreau-Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations.

Sarkozy's tough language about China and Russia set him apart from Chirac, who was often criticized for too-cozy ties with authoritarian leaders. Sarkozy warned Russia against exercising its energy resources with "brutality." And he said China was "transforming its insatiable quest for raw materials into a strategy of control, notably in Africa."

While France has a history of close ties with the Arab world, Sarkozy said: "I have the reputation of being a friend of Israel, and it's true. I will never compromise on Israel's security." He also said the many Arab leaders who have visited him since his election know they can count on his friendship.

Sarkozy, who spent his summer holiday in New England and has the nickname "Sarko the American," sent his foreign minister to Iraq last week to smooth over ties that were ruffled when Chirac opposed the U.S.-led Iraq invasion. Friendly ties do not mean there cannot be differences of opinion, he said.

"France was and still is hostile to the war," he said, calling for a timetable for troop withdrawal. Sarkozy has often suggested Chirac's manner of opposing the war was too arrogant.

Though he criticized the U.S. over Iraq, Sarkozy showed his commitment to the security effort in Afghanistan by pledging more troops to train the Afghan army – following months of speculation about France's commitment to the international force.

Closer to home, Sarkozy reiterated his proposal for a Mediterranean Union to bridge the divide between Europe and North Africa. The idea echoes a concept dear to Chirac – a "dialogue of cultures" to counteract the forces of extremism.

On Iran, Sarkozy spoke bluntly: "For me, Iran having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable."

Like Chirac, however, Sarkozy was careful to insist that civilian nuclear power is another story. If countries like Iran run out of fossil fuels, and "if they don't have the right to the energy of the future, then we will create conditions of misery and underdevelopment, and therefore an explosion of terrorism," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy said Iran could still choose between dialogue with the international community or more U.N. sanctions, saying, "This tactic is the only one that allows us to escape from a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb, or the bombing of Iran."Francois Heisbourg, a leading expert on French strategic and foreign policy, said that even when Sarkozy was sending a message of continuity, his style differed dramatically from Chirac's oratory flourishes.

Sarkozy's was "clear talk. No punches pulled. No dancing around words. This was very deliberate," Heisbourg said. "It's a message to the Iranians, but it's also a message to the Russians and the Chinese – that is, that if you want us to have a serious chance to try to avoid getting ... into this awful alternative, you'd better be serious in the Security Council."


Subject: French news

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