Sunday, June 8, 2008 Sarkozy's split with the legacy of de Gaulle
By PASCAL BONIFACE
PARIS — A year ago, when Nicolas Sarkozy was campaigning for the French presidency, he promised a "rupture" with the past. So far, few French people can see the sort of rupture that Sarkozy promised.
But they are wrong to think that nothing has changed in the first year of his presidency. Sarkozy has, in fact, brought about a rupture, albeit in an unexpected area: the foreign policy consensus that has prevailed since the days of Charles de Gaulle.
Of course, it is impossible at this early stage to evaluate with any degree of precision the long-term strategic repercussions of Sarkozy's apparent decision to return France to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's integrated military command and strengthen the French military commitment to NATO's out-of-theater engagement — its first ever — in Afghanistan.
Still, the implication of these decisions is clear: France under Sarkozy is now back at the heart of the Atlantic Alliance.
Although this may seem mundane outside France, Sarkozy's foreign policy revolution has incited fierce opposition at home. All leftwing parties denounce Sarkozy's rupture with the Fifth Republic's military/diplomatic heritage.
Of course, the left's real quarrel with Sarkozy's policy has its roots in his conception of France's relationship with the United States. Wariness of America was, to be sure, not just a leftist pose; many Gaullists over the decades have been tinged with anti-Americanism, too.
But, although Sarkozy may not have sold his party on the merits of George W. Bush's America, he has softened its once habitual suspicions about the U.S. As a result, a left-right divide has opened in this central area of French diplomacy — a division that has not been seen in France for four decades.
The French left, not surprisingly, rejects Sarkozy's Atlanticist impulses and frequently charge him with betraying de Gaulle's legacy. The majority of French people, however, appear to favor improving ties with the U.S.
There is more than a little irony here. In the year that the Socialists are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 demonstrations against de Gaulle, they are also trying to steal his diplomatic clothes by proclaiming themselves the defenders of the independent French foreign policy that he championed.
In the 1960s, both Socialists and Centrists denounced de Gaulle's "anti-Americanism." On NATO, France's Middle East policy, or the constitution, Francois Mitterrand (the Socialist leader in the 1960s) and the opposition sharply criticized de Gaulle's go-it-alone ways for shattering the Alliance consensus.
Indeed, the Socialists opposed de Gaulle's decision to withdraw France from NATO's unified military command, opposed the creation of an independent French nuclear arsenal (they preferred the American nuclear guarantee), and were hostile to de Gaulle's rupture with Israel after the Six Day War.
But the Socialists began to change their stripes in the late 1970s, rallying around the concept of nuclear dissuasion as a guarantee of national independence and beginning to distance themselves from America.
Although Mitterrand did stand firm with the U.S. on the stationing of Pershing missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, which won him respect from President Ronald Reagan, by this point the Gaullist consensus on the fundamentals of French foreign policy had spread across all political groups. Even the Communist Party could be said to have basically embraced its tenets.
Sarkozy has now broken with this "Gaullist-Mitterrandist" orientation, which was based on the persistence of a belief in French "exceptionalism" in the field of foreign affairs. This does not mean that Sarkozy's France will toe the American line on all international issues. Far from it.
It does mean that France will no longer oppose America just for the sake of opposing America.
Pascal Boniface is director of the Institute for International and Strategic relations, Paris. His most recent book is "Football and Globalization." © 2008 Project Syndicate (Project Syndicate