Toward the end of the lengthy debate on Wednesday night between France’s presidential candidates, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, there was a brief segment on foreign policy. By then many people had gone to bed.
Polls suggest that Hollande will be France’s next president, despite his inexperience in matters overseas. Voters have other priorities, above all the economy and the future of the European project, which is as close to “foreign” as the French will allow. But for those of us living in the Middle East, what has been Sarkozy’s legacy in the region, or at least the Levant and the Gulf, where Paris has tried to leave its mark?
Recall this interesting assessment of Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, for a partial answer. In their 2006 book Chirac D’Arabie, Eric Aeschimann and Christophe Boltanski argued that Chirac had managed on numerous occasions to create valuable openings in the Arab world, without exploiting them. In Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and in negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, the authors wrote, he “conquered the power to act, then did nothing.”
The same can be said of Nicolas Sarkozy. Though he desperately sought to break with Chirac, the current president was, similarly, caught up in a crisis of purpose. That may have been inevitable. France today remains a second-tier power in the region. American disengagement under President Barack Obama has left a vacuum largely filled by Arab states and Iran, not by the Europeans.
And yet Sarkozy merits applause for his actions during the past year in Libya and Syria. He and his British counterpart, David Cameron, led the air campaign (albeit with considerable American logistical support) against Moammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, and earlier than most recognized the absolute savagery of Bashar al-Assad’s repression. It is the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who was the first to mention setting up humanitarian corridors in Syria, a scheme that may yet be implemented as the plan of Kofi Annan unravels.
It’s true that the ambitions in Paris were repeatedly outpaced by France’s limited military and diplomatic capabilities. However, there was boldness and imagination in the French approach to Libya and Syria, contrasting starkly with the sluggishness and inconsistency in Washington. There has also been refreshing outrage. It seems to make a difference in Paris that innocent people are being slaughtered, whereas the Obama administration has seemed far more detached.
Looking back through the full complement of Sarkozy’s years in power, the president entered the Middle East full of sound and fury. Except for the last 12 months, this has usually signified nothing.
Soon after taking office in 2007, Sarkozy sought to overhaul his relationship with Syria, while mediating in the Lebanese crisis. The consequences were embarrassing. His foreign minister at the time, Bernard Kouchner, was more an impresario than a diplomat, a man of baroque yet hollow initiatives; all intangible movement.
When Emile Lahoud’s term ended, there was disagreement in Lebanon over who would succeed the president. Kouchner’s priority was to fill the void in Beirut by persuading Bashar al-Assad, who was largely responsible for that void, to give the green light for an election. Assad had no incentive to do so. His ability to block progress earned him more leverage, and anyway his focus was not on normalizing with France; it was to reopen contacts with the United States after the rift that had followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Kouchner came and went—even organizing a Lebanese dialogue session in St. Cloud, a Paris suburb—to no avail. The most egregious French error was to undermine Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004, which France had co-sponsored with the United States. The resolution was designed, among other things, to prevent Syrian interference in Lebanon’s presidential election. And here was Kouchner pleading with Assad to interfere in a presidential election.
France’s interest in Lebanon waned somewhat after the Doha Accord of May 2008. Before long, Sarkozy could see that his flirtation with Assad had become a one-way street, and that French influence over the Syrian leader was negligible. It was with the resentment of a lover once spurned that Sarkozy and his new foreign minister, Alain Juppé, turned against Assad in 2011, after the start of the Syrian revolt. This reaction was similar to that of Turkey, which had also wagered heavily on Assad’s otherwise imaginary reformist impulses.
Sarkozy’s most interesting Middle Eastern innovation was the expansion of France’s relationship with Qatar. This was risky in light of the uneasy relationship between the emirate and Saudi Arabia. The French president was criticized for placing too much emphasis on the Qatari connection, when France had been used to a broader range of political ties. And yet the friendship with Qatar’s emir served Paris well, not least during the Libya conflict as well as economically, with the Qataris investing heavily in the Paris property market.
Looking back on Sarkozy’s tenureship, the path he has cut in the Arab world is a zigzag. In Libya and Syria, the president initially went in one direction, ameliorating ties with Qaddafi and Assad, before moving in diametrically opposed directions when the circumstances changed. In Lebanon, too, the ardor of engagement was tempered by the reality of France’s shortcomings. This contradictory behavior revealed an absence of political depth. However, volatility was not always a bad thing, as when the French, with less to lose, proved more agile in responding to the Arab uprisings than the Americans.
Sarkozy’s policies toward the Arab world, like Sarkozy himself, have been energetic, opportunistic, audacious and chaotic, deriving more from gut instinct and personal amity than from a clear strategy. Not surprisingly, foreign affairs were decided more often at the Elysée Palace than at the Quai d’Orsay. Sometimes successful, sometimes calamitous, France’s performance was never boring.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.