President Sarkozy’s visit to Washington today is likely to be a friendly affair. The new inhabitant of the Élysée Palace already bonded with his American counterpart in Maine earlier this year. He has praised the United States in warm tones rarely heard these days from European politicians — noting that immigrants such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and black Americans such as Colin Powell and Condi Rice can rise to the highest offices because America is a free country. He made it plain long before the recent French elections that he wanted France to imitate America’s economic dynamism and social mobility. And he has something of the American in his whiz-kid personality and straightforwardness — more, indeed, than most American politicians, who must have watched in wondering envy as he dismissed 60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl’s question about his broken marriage as a triviality and stalked splendidly off the set.
All these things have commended him to those Americans who pay attention to foreign affairs and 60 Minutes. Add in the undoubted fact that Sarkozy is — as Christopher Caldwell pointed out — one of those politicians who “make the weather,” and there are reasonable hopes that the Sarkozy presidency will mean better Franco-U.S. relations.
Such hopes are justified provided they remain modest. Sarkozy is without doubt an improvement on his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, in every respect, including the diplomatic. Chirac made anti-Americanism a keynote of his foreign policy. He was, so to speak, anti-American even when it wasn’t to France’s advantage. One of his principal aims was to orchestrate a coalition of powers, including China and Russia, in opposition to the United States. He never succeeded in this grandiose project, but he did maximize European opposition to the Iraq War (even though a majority of European Union member-states supported U.S. policy). And with the support of the bureaucratic EU Commission (and the unnoticed cooperation of Tony Blair), he succeeded in dragooning other governments into starting up a European defense organization separate from (and rivaling) NATO.
Sarkozy is only embarking on his course, but the signs are that he wants to lead France and Europe in directions more compatible with U.S. policy but still distinctly “Europeanist.” For instance, his appointment of Bernard Kouchner, the leftist co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, as France’s foreign minister indicates that France will now be less skeptical of rooting foreign policy in human rights — but more critical of the U.S. when it pursues realpolitik that runs counter to left-wing and bien pensant opinion.
Sarkozy also wants a more “American,” economically dynamic France and EU, but he plainly believes that the best route to dynamism is not free trade and competition on the American model but protectionism and “picking national winners.” Or perhaps European winners. His greatest diplomatic success so far has been to persuade the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to push through a change in the proposed Euro-constitutional treaty abandoning the commitment to “undistorted competition.”
Finally, Sarkozy is fighting a strike of public workers in order to reduce the extravagant cost of their pension and early-retirement contracts. It is a struggle reminiscent of Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers. If Sarkozy wins, he will both advance the long-term economic prospects of France and impress foreign governments as a serious statesman.
That would be a mixed blessing, but a blessing all the same. A strong France in a strong Europe is and should be an important American interest. But a strong European Union based on protectionism and an industrial policy of subsidizing European “champions” would have two flaws. First, experience shows that such policies usually fail expensively. Second, while still in effect, such a policy would tend to produce needless Airbus-type disputes between the U.S. and the EU. At a time when we should be moving toward a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA), protectionists on both continents would be egging each other on to declare a trade war.
Sarkozy may be persuaded to question his protectionism on these second grounds. He has argued in the past, contradicting Chirac’s approach, that Western unity is essential in a world of rising non-European powers. An early test of his sincerity (or vision) may be available in relation to NATO. John Bolton has expressed the serious hope that Sarkozy might rejoin NATO’s military structure (which de Gaulle left in the 1960s). If that were to happen, it would strengthen NATO greatly, undermine the separate Euro-defense body, and create an atmosphere in which other Atlanticist projects such as a TAFTA look more plausible.
Such a dramatic reversal of a policy embraced by de Gaulle as well as by Chirac would shake the French establishment, Left and Right, to its foundations. It would provoke a rebellion in the streets. Very few politicians would dare to take such risks. Still, you can’t rule it out when Sarkozy, accused of pro-Americanism, replies with bold Gallic wit: “Oh, yes. It’s true. Don’t torture me. I confess. Here is a country, one of the few across the world apart from Poland, with which we have never been at war. It is really not a reason to hate each other.”
In the face of such élan, it is hard to keep our hopes modest. But we will wait and see.