The prospect of "Le Changement" — of a Socialist returning to the Elysée Palace after seventeen years — draws closer as France goes to the polls for a second time on Sunday [May 6, 2012].
Francois Hollande’s historic victory in the first round of France’s presidential elections, as well as the strong showing by the far-right Front National (FN), demonstrate that what lie closest to French hearts are domestic policy and the visceral issues of identity.
That message was further underlined on Wednesday [May 2], during the most bruising presidential debate of the past 30 years. Grappling with the prospect of ultimate defeat on May 6, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reverted to Sarko (not an affectionate nickname), the streetwise bruiser, the challenger, the underdog. It is the role in which he has always felt most comfortable.
But the elephant in the room was foreign affairs. Rarely did the debate veer further than the European Union and its current travails; given the priority status that France’s chronic domestic concerns have, that was almost inevitable.
Whether Sarkozy and his advisers have missed a trick remains to be seen. However, under Sarkozy’s stewardship, France’s foreign policy has been expansive, some might say adventurist, a key feature of his presidency and his vision of a globally influential nation. Who wins on Sunday will doubtlessly affect France’s overseas image.
It had been assumed that presenting his credentials as an established world leader would be grounds on which Sarkozy could outflank Hollande.
Sarkozy, an arch-Atlanticist, has placed France front and center on of a number of issues, not least of which include commanding NATO’s air campaign in Libya, leading the EU’s diplomatic efforts in Syria and dedicating 3300 troops to the Afghan war. However, the issue which resonates with Sarkozy and brings out the hard-liner in him most is Iran.
Taken in isolation, Iran is troubling enough for France, its theocratic system a direct challenge to the established laïcité of the French. However, Sarkozy adopts the double premise that an ascendant Iran also represents an “existential challenge to the survival of Israel … If Iran were to threaten Israel's security in any way, France would be alongside Israel."
Early returns show that among expatriate French citizens living in Israel, around 80% backed Sarkozy in the first round.
From his first days in office, Sarkozy was keen to show that he took a particular interest where Iran was concerned.
The appointment of a Socialist, Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister was seen by traditional Gaullists as quirky and mercurial, but in keeping with Sarkozy’s personality. Kouchner, an outspoken interventionist, set out his stall early. In September 2007, he told Le Monde, "We will negotiate [with Iran] until the end. And at the same time we must prepare ourselves ... for the worst.... The worst is war."
This prompted Mohammed El-Baradei, then-chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to characterize Kouchner’s talk of war as “hype.”
Criticism notwithstanding, Sarkozy has implemented the most punitive policies against Iran and simultaneously succeeded in persuading France’s key European allies, Germany and the UK, to adopt an equally hard line. After co-sponsoring four rounds of United Nations sanctions, Sarkozy’s current stated position that “France is determined to impose on Iran, through negotiations, the suspension of all enrichment activities and the renunciation of nuclear weapons,” is one that is shared by the EU at large. A European diplomat briefing journalists at the recent Iran-EU3+3 summit in Istanbul said, “Even if they agree to hand over their 20% enriched uranium, some in Europe will argue to keep up the pressure — to not take down any of the sanctions — until they also hand over the 3.5% enriched uranium.”
Ironically, France’s posture became more hawkish at exactly the moment when the United States began using a more conciliatory tone.
Moreover, Sarkozy’s challenge to Iran has not been restricted to the nuclear issue. Unlike other Western leaders who have rarely criticized Iran’s brutal human rights violations, Sarkozy has been outspoken in his condemnation of them, and in his support of its victims.
A foreign-policy analyst close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, welcomes the prospect of Sarkozy’s likely defeat in Sunday’s run-off and says, “It would be very good for Iran, since he [Sarkozy] takes a very hard-line anti-Iranian stance … the defeat of an ardent Atlanticist is also to be welcomed as a blow to American interests.” However, he stops short of welcoming a Hollande presidency, his comments tempered by a belief that “It’s a case of the lesser of two evils…while the arrival of the Socialists might not offer any material advantage to Iran.”
In terms of brokering better relations between France and Iran, the expert — an influential aide within the top reaches of the Iranian regime — says that Hollande would be well advised to distance himself from the United States’ and Israel’s objectives, and develop instead a foreign-policy agenda reflecting “France’s true national interest.”
Many in Iran’s exiled opposition share the view that “Le Changement” would not mean a sea change. Potkin Azarmehr, a much-respected journalist and critic of the Islamic Republic, told Al-Monitor that “On the whole, Socialists work in greater harmony with the Mullahs.” Therefore, if Hollande is elected on Sunday, he expects a change in tone, if not in substance.
Opponents of Iran’s theocrats are hoping Sarkozy can hold on, but their support for him is hugely qualified. The release in May 2010 of Ali Vakili Rad — the man convicted of the 1991 murder of Iran’s last pre-revolution prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar — demonstrates exactly how coldly pragmatic Sarkozy is. The fact that Vakili Rad’s release was ordered to secure the freedom of Clotilde Reiss, the French national held on espionage charges by the Iranians, cut little ice with anti-regime campaigners, who saw it as a betrayal, dispelling any illusions of Sarkozy as a champion of Iran’s opposition.
Taking France’s stance vis-à-vis Iran as a whole, there is little suggestion that a Hollande presidency would usher in any major changes in the official position.
“Every effort should be made to reach a negotiated outcome in close and constant contact with our partners," Hollande told the Nouvel Observateur recently. "I hope that the dialogue with Iran would be held on solid and serious grounds. At the same time, the international community must, through sanctions, make its determination clear: Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons."
However, with domestic politics dominating French thinking, it is safe to assume that a new man in the Elysée would refocus. The spotlight would fall less often on Iran. In turn, this could help take the heat out of the situation, allowing for dialogue under conditions more conducive to agreement. All of this assumes that either or both France and Iran will subscribe to an agenda targeting a resolution. Looking ahead, that is the real test, more so than who becomes France’s next president.
Shahab Mossavat is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in London, and is on Twitter as @1Shahab1.