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Shift in French Policy over the Middle East

Sunday 27 May 2007, by Nicola Nasser

The defensive and guarded Arab reaction to the self-pronounced and reported pro-Israel and pro-America statements of Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, who was sworn in as the new President of France on May 16, as well as his Jewish connection and that of his foreign policy team, have alerted Arab capitals and public opinion to a possibly imminent break with his country’s more than a five-decade old balanced approach to Arab conflicts and the Arab—Israeli conflict in particular.

Acting on a campaign pledge to a clean break with France’s political past, Sarkozy’s declared aim to change France could yet prove easier said than done, but nonetheless Sarkozy has grouped together a foreign policy team that could vindicate Arab fears; however Sarkozy’s pragmatism could not but take French huge interests in the Arab world into consideration, which might still prove his Arab critics wrong.

Next month marks the fortieth anniversary of the June 5, 1967 Arab—Israeli war, which changed the face of the Middle East. France’s Middle East policy made a sharp reversal soon thereafter. Franco-Israeli relations have seen their “Golden Age” in the 1950s, when France was Israel’s main ally, weapons supplier and nuclear capability provider. The low point came after the 1967 war, during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, when France imposed an almost complete arms embargo, left Israel to its strategic alliance with the United States and embarked since then on her balanced approach to the Arab—Israeli conflict. French—Arab relations were reinforced further after the Arab—Israeli war and the oil crisis of 1973.

Just three days after the shooting stopped, late President de Gaulle instructed his foreign minister to denounce Israel before the French National Assembly and the United Nations General Assembly. A month later, he said that, “we told the Israelis not to start a conflict. Now, France does not recognize her conquests.” In the following November he elaborated further: “Israel, having attacked, seized, in six days of combat, objectives that she wanted to attain. Now she is organizing, on the territories she has taken, an occupation that cannot but involve oppression, repression, expropriation, and there has appeared against her a resistance that she, in turn, describes as terrorism.”

Sarkozy is promising a 180 degree turnabout on de Gaulle’s legacy. His pro-Israeli views have prompted a flurry of contacts between Arab capitals and Paris, with Arabs seeking a reassurance of continuity. President Mubarak of Egypt was so worried about a French shift that he sought a meeting to ask Sarkozy about his “Israeli bias” during his recent visit to Paris to bid farewell to his predecessor Jacque Chirac. Arab defensive reaction to his presidency was alerted by several factors.

Jewish Connection

The Arab defensive reaction to his presidency was alerted by several factors, but his Jewish connection in particular was interpreted as the reason behind his pro-Israel statements. Within this context, Sarkozy’s emerging team on foreign policy is being watched with concern by Arab capitals.

Sarkozy’s election was hailed by Israel and Jewish organizations worldwide, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the umbrella group of French Jewish communal organizations (CRIF), AIPAC in the United States, the Rabbinical Center of Europe, to name a few. They should, and they did, feel relieved with the new Sarkozy-led pro-Israel French administration with a strong Jewish and US connections. Sarko, as his supporters call him, has openly and repeatedly called himself a friend of Israel in good times and in bad, the Israeli French edition of the Jerusalem Post reported on May 3, quoting him as saying that “makes me an ‘Atlantist,’ pro-Israeli and pro-American.” They hope that Sarkozy will adopt a policy more in coordination with the US and in line with that of Britain and Germany than with what they see as a traditional “politique arabe de la France” of recent decades.

In 2002, the then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged French Jews to immigrate en masse to Israel after a spate of anti-Jews attacks. Sarkozy, as interior minister, responded: “France is not a racist country. France is not an anti-Semitic country.” Israelis and Jews also could still remember the reference a few years ago by French ambassador to England, Daniel Bernard, to Israel as a “shitty little country.”

Now, Sarkozy is undoubtedly the most Israel-friendly president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, reported on May 11. He is an admirer of the Jewish state and has warm ties with the French Jewish community. His maternal grandfather, Aron Mallah, nicknamed Benkio, was a Greek Jew from Salonika who migrated to France before the Second World War and converted to Catholicism but nevertheless had to hide during World War II because of his Jewish roots. In total, 57 of Sarkozy’s family members were murdered by the Nazis. His wife Cecilia is also of Jewish ancestry. He is a 2003 laureate of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Humanitarian Award.

However neither his Jewish family background nor his fervent opposition to anti-Semitism would alienate Arabs, but the family’s active role in the Zionist movement certainly would alert them to a potential effect on his politics as much as would his personal Israeli friends like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Beniko’s uncle Moshe was a devoted Zionist who, in 1898 published and edited El Avenir, the leading paper of the Zionist movement in Greece at the time. His cousin, Asher, in 1912 helped guarantee the establishment of the Jewish Technion in Haifa, Palestine and in 1919 he was elected as the first President of the Zionist Federation of Greece and he headed the Zionist Council for several years; in the 1930s Asher helped Jewish immigration to and colonization of Palestine, to which he himself immigrated in 1934. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 another of Beniko’s cousins, Peppo Mallah, became the country’s first diplomatic envoy to Greece. Sarkozy says he admired his grandfather, who bequeathed to Nicolas his political convictions.

His pro–US and pro Israel sympathies and his Jewish connection are reinforced by similar sympathies of his governing team. His close confident and Prime Minister, François Fillon’s Anglo-Saxon connection is customized by his British-born wife, the first of a French head of government. His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who made several visits to Israel and received an honorary degree from Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba at the height of the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) was born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother; in a January 2004 interview, Kouchner lamented that the French had become “America-haters.” Kouchner is also close to UMP MP and France’s ambassador in Washington, Pierre Lellouche, who is Sarkozy’s advisor on international issues. Levitte will head a diplomatic team in the presidential administration modelled on the US National Security Council; he is another Jewish figure in Sarkozy’s foreign policy team. The New culture minister, Christine Albanel, 51, is a former member of the board of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust.

In an interview Sarkozy gave in 2004, The Jewish Journal online on May 11 quoted him as saying: “Should I remind you the visceral attachment of every Jew to Israel, as a second mother homeland? There is nothing outrageous about it. Every Jew carries within him a fear passed down through generations, and he knows that if one day he will not feel safe in his country, there will always be a place that would welcome him. And this is Israel.”

How could Arabs interpret this other than being a direct encouragement of a dual loyalty and an indirect call for immigration to Israel in contradiction with his insistence on loyalty by the mostly Arab and Muslim French immigrant citizens to “French identity,” for which he created the new ministry of immigration and national identity?

Sarkozy visited Israel several times, but never the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. He has repeatedly said that he would not legitimize Hamas or Hizbullah by entering into dialogue with them, a statement that would politically translate into exacerbation of the Palestinian and Lebanese national divides by not recognizing the democratically elected Hamas-led national unity government, thus perpetuating the siege on the Palestinians, and by blocking Hizbullah’s partnership in Lebanon’s decision-making.

Coordination with US

He stunned a group of Arab ambassadors by telling them “his foreign policy priority as president would be to forge a closer relationship with Israel,” The Washington Times on May 12 cited a report by The New York Times as saying. His pledged “friendship” with the US is viewed by Arabs as heralding a new unbalanced approach that will give impetus to Washington’s strategic plans for the Middle East and would perpetuate the regional Arab—Israeli, Iraqi, Darfur and Lebanon - Syria conflicts in particular. His foreign minister agrees: “On … the Middle East, on the need for an alliance with America, on the role of France in Europe—we’re very close,” Kouchner said on record.

Sarkozy’s pro-American views have added to Arab concerns that he would break with France’s traditionally independent policy in their region, dashing as wishful thinking Arab hopes of an independent European approach that might develop a counterbalance in resolving Arab conflicts to the US Israeli-biased approach. Sarkozy’s warm relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the expected accession of British Chancellor Gordon Brown to the premiership signal the rise of a relatively pro-American trio of European leaders.

In his first speech after his election, Sarkozy warned Iran, Syria, and Libya that they could no longer play Europe off against America. Like his predecessor Chirac, Sarkozy is determined to disengage Syria from Lebanon in coordination with the US, but it will not be as “personal” as it was with Chirac, but unlike him he openly called Hizbullah a terrorist organization, which would clear the way for the main Lebanese anti-Israel resistance group to be included in the EU list of terrorist organizations, thus bringing France closer to the US classification of Hizbullah. His foreign minister’s visit of support to Beirut last week at the height of fighting between the Lebanese army and a suspiciously al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Islam group in a northern one square kilometre Palestinian refugee camp was seen by some as playing into the hands of a US strategy to exacerbate Lebanon’s internal political crisis into a violent one.

US—French coordination in Lebanon and vis-à-vis Syria was unveiled following the Israeli war on Lebanon last summer, but was recently confirmed further at the UN Security Council by the joint US-British-French draft resolution to create an international tribunal for Lebanon under chapter 7 of the United Nation Charter.

Sarkozy is expected to be more aggressive as he is also gearing towards more coordination with Washington in the Sudanese region of Darfur; he has called for “urgent” action there, warning that Khartoum would be made to face international justice for its actions. Kouchner, his maverick top diplomat, considers the Sudan’s war-torn region his top priority. On May 9, the US State Department said it wants the new elected French president to play an important role in Darfur peacekeeping mission, particularly in the no-fly zone.

On Iraq, Sarkozy’s choice of Kouchner, the co-founder of the Nobel Prize winner “Doctors Without Borders,” as his foreign minister could send a message to Arabs that priority will go to “humanitarianism” in foreign policy, contrary to the long-held Gaullist French policy, which evaluates crises through the lens of France’s national interests. Kouchner is famous for developing the theory of “humanitarian intervention” to justify international military adventures according to which he believes that the US-led invasion was justified to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Sarkozy’s declared hopes to forge closer ties with the NATO could mean a greater role for France in training the new Iraqi police and army based on quotas already set by NATO. It could also mean greater involvement in the Arab section of the alliance’s southern flank in Lebanon, where French peacekeepers already play a leading role.

On the humanitarian crises in the occupied Palestinian territories and Iraq, Sarkozy’s top diplomat is silently passive, more in line with the US deafening silence, revealing a politically selective approach in his humanitarian concerns that took him to Africa, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Darfur and even led him to endorse a boycott of the Olympic Games in Peking in order to force China to break its trade relations with Sudan on Darfur.

Sarkozy’s attitude and planned policies for alien immigrants have also a lot in common with those of US President George W. Bush, and will undoubtedly be watched as a test case to judge his cultural and political approach to Arabs and Muslims in general. His view of “radical Islamists” could place him in line with US-led world war on “Islamic terrorism.” Leading British writer on the Middle East, Patrick Seale, on April 27 quoted him as saying: “Algeria was very brave to interrupt the democratic process. If the army had not acted, one could have had a Taliban regime in Algeria.”

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is looking forward to visiting France and having cooperation with her new French counterpart, the State Department said last week. “There’s a lot on the table for the U.S. and France in terms of being able to address issues of mutual concern around the globe, whether that’s Iran or the Middle East or dealing with poverty alleviation in Africa or climate change,” State Department spokesman Sean McComack told a news briefing.

Counter Arguments

However several factors could yet reign in a complete clean break with Paris’ traditional balanced approach to Middle East issues, a “hope” shared by all Arab governments and even by such controversial grassroots movements like Hizbullah of Lebanon and the ruling Hamas of the Palestinian Authority government.

Arabs are already aware that Sarkozy’s father was Hungarian and grandfather Jewish, but he himself grew up Catholic and speaks no Hungarian. His heritage “doesn’t mean he’s going to take Jewish positions,” said Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. Moreover Arab leaders are already doing normal business with both Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish leaders.

Sarkozy’s programs will, first, depend on the legislative elections of the National Assembly to be held in two ballots on June 10 and 17. Second he will spend the lion’s share of his time dealing with domestic issues then he will be preoccupied with France’s role in Europe and NATO. Third he has to deal with an array of a powerful coalition of vested interests, from the communist-dominated trade unions to the elites who dominate the civil service, not least the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Quai d’Orsay. He, fourth, is on record as saying recently that “he wants excellent links with the Arab states” and there is no reason not to believe him.

Fifth, Sarkozy’s pro-Americanism is not a carte blanche as he “is impressed far more by what the United States does at home than by its global aims and presence,” according to Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. His opposition to Turkey’s membership in the EU is evidence that both countries’ international agendas are not identical. Sixth, if the election of Fran็ois Mitterrand as president in 1981 and 1988 is to serve as a guiding precedent it reminds observers that it caused similar worries in the Arab world, but Mitterrand was also the first Western leader to declare support for Palestinian self-determination and a right to have their own state. Seventh, Sarkozy could be following the leadership of the US, but isn’t this is the same leadership with the strongest Jewish connection that most Arab leaders are already in business with, which promises more of the same, but no drastic change.

Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

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