France Changes Course after Sarkozy

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Pirooz Izadi
06 June 2012

The coming to power of François Hollande in France heralds opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations between Iran and France. The foreign policy record of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was mostly marked by his personal characteristics, with shifting strategies. The overall impression was that he was looking for any opportunity to assert himself on the international scene. For this reason, his foreign policy could be defined as ambitious, opportunistic and adventurist. Along these lines, he distanced from the French traditional foreign policy based on Gaullist principles and opted for pursuing a policy akin to the U.S. and stepping in the shadow of Americans. Sarkozy joined NATO's integrated military command in contrast to General De Gaulle's decision to withdraw France from the U.S. nuclear umbrella in 1966. He tried to help the U.S. neo- conservative government to overcome crises that were created after the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. By doing this, Sarkozy intended to find opportunities to play a greater role in the international affairs. But, his initiatives in the domain of foreign policy showed many instances of contradiction, incoherence and ambivalence. Sarkozy's pioneering of attacking Libya to topple Gaddafi's regime in 2011 was in sharp contrast with his warm welcome of Gaddafi in Paris in 2007; his denial of the role of French peacekeeping forces in arresting Laurent Bagbo, former Ivory Coast's president who resisted to transfer the power to new- elected president in 2011contradicted the reports saying that Bagbo's arrest was carried out by direct intervention of French forces in violation of their mandate in that country; and his initiatives to undermine Bashar al Assad government were inconsistent with inviting Assad to Bastille Day ceremony as his special guest in 2008. Therefore, as some analysts said Sarkozy had no foreign policy.

Regarding Iran and especially its nuclear program dossier, Sarkozy, in line with his alignment with the U.S., adopted a tough stance. He even used a harsh tone against Iran surpassing that of the U.S. to condemn Iran's nuclear activities. He said that "Iran's obsession with acquiring nuclear material is against international rules. The international community should focus on sanctions. If Israel's existence is threatened, France will not stand by with arms crossed". Also, in another statement, Sarkozy said that "the continuation of Iran's nuclear program would bring about no more than two results: Iranian bomb or bombing Iran". When president Obama came to power in 2009 and proposed to start direct and unconditioned talks with Iran, Sarkozy called Obama's attitude immature and urged him to take a tougher stance against Iran. These stances taken by Sarkozy stemmed from his willingness to have an active and leading role in dealing with international crises as well as his affinity with Israel far more than any other French president. Also, Sarkozy was the leading voice of skepticism over negotiations among Western leaders, and he took the lead in pressing both the Obama administration and European governments to adopt the sanctions targeting Iran’s energy exports and banking sector that have had a painful impact on the Iranian economy.

Now, with the defeat of Sarkozy, France has once again a "normal" president who will spend most of his time to address the economic problems of his country. It is expected that Hollande who lacks Sarkozy's ambitions to be depicted as a proactive player on the international scene, take a milder tone in dealing with Iran. This may open the new windows of opportunities for improving bilateral relations between Iran and France - the two countries with many common interests – in the future. However, it would be a vain hope, if we expect too much of the new French government. Given the new atmosphere, adopting a subtle diplomacy towards France based on commonalities could be constructive and lead to good results.