Finding Foreign Policy in the French Elections

PARIS – The French presidential elections are a little more than a month away, and foreign policy has played only a minor role in the campaign. The focus on jobs and economic growth has allowed the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, to slide by without outlining a foreign policy program. The danger for Hollande is that French President Nicolas Sarkozy could begin to emphasize his role in strengthening France’s international standing.

Hollande is a relative unknown outside of France, and even to the French themselves he remains somewhat of a mystery. After presiding over the Socialist Party between 1997 and 2008, Hollande took a break from politics that allowed him to hone his ideas, assemble a new team, and shed 40 pounds. Hollande’s understanding of French society, his willingness to attack Sarkozy, and his new-found gregariousness made him the obvious choice for the Socialists after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was forced out of the race.

After winning the November primary, Hollande has campaigned on his desire to find a path to growth that would not involve the austerity measures that have hit Greece so hard. As Hollande’s proposals were being covered extensively in the French press, Sarkozy was compelled to announce his candidacy on February 15, a full month before he originally planned.

Since then, Sarkozy’s campaign has lacked direction, surprising some Elysée watchers. He has gone from developing traditionally Socialist themes, such as levying higher taxes for major companies and the much-hated “fiscal expatriates” to treading on the extreme-right’s turf by endorsing a false rumor that half of the meat eaten in the Paris region is Halal. And, more surprisingly, he announced Sunday that he would suspend France’s participation in the Schengen agreements “if no progress is made to control migratory influxes.” Aside from being near-impossible to do, it symbolizes the extent to which Sarkozy has soured on the European Union, despite defining himself as its savior. Such a position on the EU is unheard of in France, one of the founding states and still today one of the driving forces of European cooperation.

Sarkozy’s right turn seems to be an effort to court the supporters of Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the extreme-right National Front and the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine Le Pen’s efforts to make her party palatable have succeeded, and she now commands a strong voting base from blue-collar workers and the middle class who see immigration as a threat to the French lifestyle.

Sarkozy has scrambled while Hollande leads in the polls. But then Sarkozy seems to relish the role of challenger. With the attention on Hollande, Sarkozy can deliver direct blows to Hollande and avoid the discussion from focusing extensively on an assessment of his presidency.

Now the front-runner, Hollande has had to flex his muscles on foreign policy and defense issues. In a speech on Sunday to outline his vision for French defense, the candidate was unconvincing and seemed ill at ease. He confirmed his plan to withdraw French forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. He said he would “work the issue out” at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, which raised eyebrows about the gap between his expectations and the reality the discussions he would have with NATO partners.

Hollande will not reassure his European and U.S. partners with the few blanket statements he has issued so far. This has led to anxiety from those partners; no one knows what to expect from him, and he does not seem ready to tell them what to expect. Hollande has a real legitimacy problem that he will need to address immediately if elected given that the Chicago summit comes within two weeks of the election. In the meantime, this weakness is an invitation for Sarkozy to highlight the success of his own foreign policy. He is quick to point out that the military operation in Libya has put France back on the map, in great part thanks to his decision to reintegrate France into NATO’s military command structure. The electorate cares about France’s position in the world, and does not think that should be compromised despite the economic crisis. Meanwhile, Hollande is in a tough spot. While he recognizes between the lines that Sarkozy’s foreign policy has been successful, he also needs to develop his own personality on foreign policy, which does not come without risks.

On these issues, Sarkozy has a clear advantage that he has not even started using for his own good. Hollande’s time to bridge the gap is running out. Rarely are elections won on foreign policy alone, but they can be lost if a candidate appears unpresidential and indecisive. Sarkozy’s turn to the right was an opening for Hollande to develop a new vision of French society, which he has done with great success. He now has to prove to the French — and the world — that he is a capable leader who can contribute to the stability of the European Union, NATO, and the transatlantic relationship.

Martin Michelot is a Program Assistant with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Paris.

Image by UMP.