Sarkozy's Policy in the Middle-East: A Break with the Past?

By Hershco, Tsilla | Insight Turkey, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Sarkozy's Policy in the Middle-East: A Break with the Past?


Hershco, Tsilla, Insight Turkey


Nicolas Sarkozy's election as France's president in May 2007 has marked a rhetorical change in the foreign policy of Paris and has made the French presidency much more dynamic. Sarkozy has led many international initiatives and increased France's presence in international and Middle Eastern arenas. Despite all these developments, however, France's Middle-Eastern policy has been characterized by a large degree of continuity since Sarkozy has embraced traditional French perceptions and agenda concerning the Middle East. Thus, he has continued France's so-called 'Arab policy', and mainly pursued past policies on key regional issues such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. Consequently, Sarkozy's declarations concerning the changing nature of French policy do not seem fully compatible with reality. So far there has also been a gap between France's optimistic assessment of the results of its Middle Eastern policy versus the less impressive outcomes on the ground.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, since his accession in May 2007, has attracted considerable attention and media coverage, not only for his captivating private life, but also due to his numerous internal reform initiatives and his intensive diplomatic agenda on the international scene. Many commentators have claimed that Sarkozy's election has dramatically transformed France's foreign policy in general and its Middle Eastern diplomacy in particular. Sarkozy himself, who focused his electoral campaign on the idea of change, asserted in his most recent address to the diplomatic corps, on Aug. 27, 2008, that his foreign and Middle Eastern policy represented a significant break with the past. (1)

The beginning of Sarkozy's presidency was indeed marked by the launching of numerous and profound internal economic, social and political reforms aimed at an overall reshaping of the French public sphere, and designed to modernize his country, thus allowing France to better compete in a globalized world and improve its international status. Likewise, Sarkozy's arrival to power marked a rhetorical change in France's foreign policy. For instance, contrary to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy has often underlined the tremendous importance he attaches to strong and friendly relations with the United States and Israel.

In addition to the new rhetoric and dynamism, Sarkozy has equally led some major international initiatives. At the head of the EU rotating presidency he recently played a key role in efforts to deal with the Georgian crisis and the international financial crisis. With regard to the Middle East, the French president has, inter alia, launched a new framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, tried to mediate between the rival Lebanese factions as well as between Israel and the Palestinians, and initiated French rapprochement with Syria.

Sarkozy's new rhetoric, dynamism and initiatives have often been perceived as a significant shift in France's policy. However, a closer look at Sarkozy's policy reveals that although more active, it is to a great extent characterized by traditional features of French aspirations to play an influential role in the Middle East. Thus, the main perceptions, as well as the initial agenda, of France in the region remain similar to the past.

In the present essay we are going to focus on the issue of continuity and disruption in Sarkozy's Middle East policy and mainly on the so called French 'Arab policy' and French attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a preface we will briefly present Sarkozy's main perceptions and policies regarding some of his key foreign policy issues, such as the EU, the US, Iran's nuclear project and Turkey's EU accession, which may serve as valuable indicators in examining the central question of this study. Concurrently, we will refer to some major challenges and obstacles inherent in the implementation of Sarkozy's policy and present a brief assessment as to the extent of his success in accomplishing his ambitious global program

Sarkozy's Foreign Policy Perspective

During the 22 months of his presidency, Sarkozy has essentially embraced traditional French foreign policy values, perceptions and objectives while combining them with his energetic style and worldwide vision. …

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