Watching the French Elections From Across the Divide

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

April 18, 2007

Americans are paying a surprising amount of attention to the presidential elections in France. The race is the stuff of captivating headlines: Nicolas Sarkozy, the brash son of a Hungarian immigrant, breaks the traditional mold of the center-right.

François Bayrou has come from nowhere to claim the center. And just as Hillary Clinton is a serious contender to become America’s first woman president, so Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, is the first woman with a real shot at the Elysée.

It’s a good story. But the interest on this side of the Atlantic also reflects the prospects for improving relations between France and the United States after decades of strain.

A closer look at France’s political landscape, however, suggests that this new era of cooperation will be far from automatic. American expectations are fed by hopes that Gaullist traditions are waning, as well as by the foreign-policy views of the current front-runner, Sarkozy.

An iconoclastic figure, he regularly challenges the orthodoxy of France’s political establishment—including on matters relating to the United States. Sarkozy has expressed admiration for American society, claims to feel an affinity with “the greatest democracy in the world” and urges the French to get over their hang-ups about working with the United States on a global agenda.

He takes a tough line on Iran, is sympathetic to Israel and supports globalization—all music to many American ears. With the relatively pro-American Angela Merkel already in power in Germany, the Bush administration relishes the prospect of working with a very different Franco-German couple than the one that led the charge to block the Iraq war in 2003.

Even if Sarkozy wins, however, it is far from certain that he would reorient French foreign policy in the way many Americans expect. His instincts are sincerely pro-American, but he would be president of a country in which U.S. policies on a wide range of issues, from Iraq to the environment to the “war on terror,” are singularly unpopular. Hemmed in by public opinion, Sarkozy already seems to regret his photo-op with George W. Bush last fall.

On the campaign trail, Sarkozy has begun to temper his support for globalization with populist rhetoric denouncing currency speculation and tight European monetary policies. And his admiration of Israel will be balanced by the views of the French public and foreign-policy bureaucracy, which are decidedly less supportive of Israel than the U.S. government would like.

If Sarkozy does not win, the path to a new era of French-American cooperation would be even bumpier. Ségolène Royal shows none of the affinity for America that Sarkozy does. With former president François Mitterrand as her political mentor, she seems to embrace a traditional leftist skepticism about “Anglo-Saxon” economic, social and foreign policies. Royal has not been a frequent visitor to the United States, and she has sought to portray Sarkozy as too close to the current U.S administration.

François Bayrou is a blank slate when it comes to foreign policy. His political career has been far more focused on domestic than international affairs. His federalist stance on Europe suggests that he would likely concentrate on pulling the EU out of its current crisis instead of working on relations with the United States.

As for this side of the Atlantic, France’s next government should be equally cautious about expecting dramatic change. Although the worst excesses of the Bush administration are likely in the past, this White House remains prone to unilateral initiatives and is unlikely to make relations with Paris a priority of its final two years.

Should the Democrats win the presidency in 2008, they would surely pursue a more multilateral foreign policy and seek to repair ties to Europe. But there will be no magic disappearance of trans-Atlantic divisions that were already present, after all, even before Bush took office.

So as the Americans and the French amuse themselves watching each other’s election campaigns, they would do well to keep their expectations in check.