published on 15/06/2007
From Shirli Sitbon, Paris
Politicians are predicting “a new era” in French policy towards the Middle East as newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy consolidates a US- and Israel-friendly cabinet.
“A new era has begun in French diplomacy with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy,” MP Claude Goasguen (UMP) predicted ahead of this week’s parliamentary elections, likely to deliver Mr Sarkozy a powerful mandate. “Sarkozy will move lines in the Middle East.”
The MP pointed out that although French foreign policy was traditionally controlled by the Quai d’Orsay (Foreign Office), Mr Sarkozy had created a new body, the National Security Council (CNS), headed by former French diplomat Jean-David Levitte. Previously the ambassador to the UN and to the US, Mr Levitte is credited with improving relations between France and the US after the Iraq war.
“The CNS will take over foreign affairs from the uncontrollable and undemocratic Quai d’Orsay,” predicted Mr Goasguen.
The Quai d’Orsay is itself likely to shift focus with the appointment of its new head, former health minister Bernard Kouchner.
A highly popular figure who spent decades in the socialist party, Mr Kouchner, 67, is viewed as one of Mr Sarkozy’s major assets. Born to a Jewish father, he founded the Médecins Sans Frontières charity and was one of the few French leaders to support a UN intervention in Iraq in 2003 in order to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
Nonetheless, analysts debated whether Mr Sarkozy’s new Foreign Minister can change France’s traditional pro-Arab position. “France’s ‘Arab policy’ depends on major national interests that are almost impossible to alter,” said UMP politician Pierre Lellouche.
“I would be extremely surprised if Sarkozy manages to implement his promises, such as including Hizbollah on the EU list of terror groups,” added Pascal Boniface, head of the IRIS political research institute.
“Sarkozy will undoubtedly push the American administration and his Israeli allies towards new negotiations, but his ability to implement his promises supportive of Israel is questionable,” Gilles Bonnaud, deputy director of the Quai d’Orsay Africa and Middle East department, told the JC.
“It’s the coordinated European position that counts, and although Sarkozy presents himself as a friend of Israel, he has nevertheless had many meetings and contacts with Arab leaders since his election.”
Uncertainty also remains over France’s attitude towards Hamas.
“If it remains popular, Sarkozy will have no choice at the end but to speak with Hamas,” the UMP’s Claude Pernes told the JC.However, working towards peace in the Middle East, he said, was important for France’s domestic stability.
“There is a parallel between the conflict in the Middle East and the riots in France. Muslims often identify with the Palestinians and if Sarkozy wants to solve the riot issue he will have to do everything he can to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
“Pushing for negotiations as quickly as possible will give an important signal to our troubled suburbs.”