French-U.S. Relations: Sarkozy Has a Fresh Take

By Sarkozy, Nicolas | European Affairs, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

French-U.S. Relations: Sarkozy Has a Fresh Take


Sarkozy, Nicolas, European Affairs


It was a highly unusual event when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the main conservative candidate to be the next president of France, came calling in Washington in September. Ahead of elections next May, his trip was bound to be viewed by many French voters as confirmation that Sarkozy is more strongly (and more openly) pro-American than his rivals, including prominent leaders in his own neo-Gaullist party, notably incumbent President Jacques Chirac, whom Sarkozy hopes to succeed.

In Washington, Sarkozy took the bull by the horns. He chose to publicly explain his seemingly instinctive "Atlanticist" tilt (code in Paris for "pro-American") while laying out what he considers reasonable expectations about U.S. behavior toward France--basically, a little respect in public and, in private, good cooperation. It was a significant Transatlantic overture from the oldest and often most nettlesome U.S. ally.

Pointing up his apparent disagreement with much French diplomacy since the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Sarkozy said: "I believe our disagreements have often been legitimate, [but] it is not appropriate to try and embarrass one's allies or give the impression of gloating over their difficulties." The thrust of this approach could hint at interest on the part of Sarkozy in seeking a new conceptual framework for France's approach to relations with the United States, with both sides seeking to play down their divergences rather than magnify them for possible domestic political gain.

In his speech, Sarkozy readily acknowledged a unique role for U.S. leadership, saying: "A weak America, an entangled America, is a problem for the entire free world." And he frankly acknowledged the damage done by short-sighted French anti-Americanism. "France, especially its elites, has sometimes in recent years been guilty of strident hostility to the United States that was misplaced, irrational and dangerous for succeeding in common Transatlantic goals," he said.

At the same time, he urged U.S. leaders to grasp the advantages of taking more account of France's positions, not only to keep an important Transatlantic ally by the side of the U.S. but also to work out more sustainable approaches against common threats. A good example of this was his tough stance against Iran, coupled with a call for the creation of an internationally-managed supply of uranium fuel for electricity generation in countries such as Iran that the international community does not want to trust with its own national uranium-enrichment program.

In calling for a more constructive approach to bilateral U.S.-French relations, Sarkozy matched his bluntness about French shortcomings with a challenge to Americans to face up to contradictions in U.S. attitudes toward France and the European Union. For example, he asked, at a time when Americans are wringing their hands about the EU's problems integrating Muslim minorities, why do U.S. officials simultaneously deliver public lectures to Europeans about their duty to accept Turkey as a new EU member state?

The Sarkozy analysis of the U.S.-French relationship was perhaps best encapsulated by an ironic mistake in translation during his remarks when he told his audience, as translated by an interpreter, that France and America are two countries "divided by common values." This phrase was corrected in the published version to depict the two countries as "united by common values." But the mistaken version--perhaps a Freudian slip?--may contain a kernel of truth in the sense that Americans and French people may well agree on the values cherished by the West and yet disagree on how to put them into practice--all the more violently because each nation expects the other to share its view. In his speech, Sarkozy seemed to take the view that it was up to elites in both nations to prevent such misunderstandings from spilling political blood in the Transatlantic water. "Vive la difference," he seemed to say, "but let's keep the fireworks in bounds. …

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