France Learns How to Say Yes

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 30, 2007

“We’ve already turned the page,” Bernard Kouchner, France’s popular new foreign minister, likes to say. The page in question concerns the tensions between France and the United States, a historic rivalry that reached a peak several years ago over the invasion of Iraq. Now, under the unabashedly pro-American President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris seems to be signaling that France will no longer seek to constrain U.S. power as a matter of principle. Even as other European leaders keep their distance from the unpopular hyperpower, France is pursuing a revolution in foreign policy that could transform the transatlantic relationship.

From the very start of his presidency last May, Sarkozy made clear that he would not be afraid of aligning himself with the United States when it was in France’s interest to do so. In the past few weeks, it’s become clear he meant what he said.

The first and symbolically most important sign came when Kouchner unexpectedly visited Iraq in August. Prior to that trip, the French government had taken the view that the Iraq War was a colossal mistake that France had warned against—and that the United States alone had to clean up the mess. Now Kouchner is saying that it’s a common problem—and that “France is ready to play a role.” For now, that role may be limited to diplomatic mediation, technical advice to the Iraqi government or economic aid. But the contrast with the past is striking.

So is Paris’s new line on Iran. Last month, Sarkozy insisted that a nuclear Iran was “unacceptable,” warning that the international community would face a choice between “an Iranian bomb and the bombing of Iran” if it didn’t get serious about the problem. A few weeks later, Kouchner reinforced the message, saying that the world had to “prepare for the worst”—and that the worst was “war.” Both men have since made clear that they weren’t calling for military action but merely underscoring the consequences of a diplomatic stalemate.

The warnings could be Paris’s attempt to encourage reluctant European allies to embrace a new French proposal to impose EU sanctions on Iran directly, skirting the United Nations, where Russia and China are likely to oppose them. But both the proposal and the rhetoric would have been inconceivable under Sarkozy’s multilateralist predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy has also broken with the Chirac approach by appealing to major French companies not to invest in Iran.

Also groundbreaking is Paris’s call for a new relationship with NATO. Sarkozy, reiterating the longstanding French desire to develop a European defense capacity, has said he wants to move closer to NATO at the same time. He’s even hinted that France might rejoin the alliance’s integrated military command structure, which President Charles de Gaulle quit in 1966. Sarkozy argues that France’s Atlanticist allies will never fully trust it so long as France keeps its distance from NATO. Playing a fuller role in the alliance, he reasons, would give Paris more influence in an organization to which it already contributes more troops than almost any other member. He’s right. Reversing more than four decades of Gaullist opposition to NATO integration would also have enormous symbolic significance and a range of practical consequences for the French military.

None of these moves—or others, like Sarkozy’s strong support for Israel—guarantee eternal amity between Paris and Washington. The French press and parliamentary opposition already talk derisively about “Sarko l’américain,” and dissenters within the French foreign ministry sneeringly refer to Kouchner and his advisers as “neocons”—a huge insult in France. In many areas, cooperation is far from guaranteed: if Iraq descends into civil war following a U.S. withdrawal, for example, the Americans will again be blamed. And a U.S. military strike on Iran would provoke violent opposition from the French public. Meanwhile, NATO reintegration could still fall apart if France demands compensation for the deal in the form of major command positions for French officers—just as it did in 1996.

Still, Sarkozy has already demonstrated his willingness to do things differently and to take risks. He is gambling that French anti-Americanism is not as deep or widespread as is commonly assumed, and he may well be proved right. France’s president, moreover, has enormous power over foreign policy. Sarkozy—with the assistance and political cover that Kouchner (a former leader of the opposition Socialist Party) provides—seems determined to use it. The next chapter in French-U.S. relations has yet to be written. But the page has definitely been turned.