French debate on Syria intervention highlights Sarkozy legacy on world affairs

Jean Marc Ayrault

What a difference a decade makes.

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Ten years after French president Jacques Chirac and France’s UN ambassador Dominique de Villepin made an impassioned stand in the United Nations against the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, France finds itself as the chief European ally in US president Barack Obama’s push to punish the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus late last month.

In a parliamentary debate in Paris yesterday, French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (pictured above) made a strong case for intervention for the purpose of demonstrating the international community’s credibility in deterring the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the future.  Center-right legislators in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement), including the UMP’s parliamentary leader Christian Jacob, argued just as forcefully that French participation in a US-led strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council — over the use of chemical weapons would isolate France’s role in the international community.

Although Chirac and the UMP also opposed unilateral intervention in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, it’s ironic that the UMP has suddenly found itself as the voice of opposition to Hollande because no one is more responsible for the transformation of France’s newfound assertiveness in world affairs than former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who succeeded Chirac in 2007, who struck a consistently muscular posture on foreign affairs.  Sarkozy, always keen to rejuvenate Franco-American relations, took a starring role alongside Cameron in the UN-backed NATO campaign to enforce a no-fly zone against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and support anti-Gaddafi rebels in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Had he won reelection in May 2012, Sarkozy would likely be just as enthusiastic as Hollande to support Syrian intervention — probably more so given the opportunity to supplant the United Kingdom as Obama’s chief partner.  Some former Sarkozy officials, notably former foreign minister Alain Juppé, support France’s forward role in Syria.

But Sarkozy, who may run again for president in 2017, has been uncharacteristically quiet on France’s role in any military action against Syria.

Silence or not, it’s the UMP’s Sarkozy who put France on the path to a more aggressive foreign policy, in part by returning France to NATO’s military command after a 40-year absence.  Since the start of Syria’s civil war two years ago, both Sarkozy and Hollande have called for Assad’s removal, and Sarkozy helped lifted the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow weapons to the anti-Assad opposition.

Hollande, who marked a rupture from Sarkozy in presidential style, social policy and economic policy, has largely followed Sarkozy’s path on foreign affairs.  Hollande ordered French troops into northern Mali earlier this year (like Libya, an action also approved by the Security Council) to reclaim territory that had been occupied by radical Islamists.  Though it was a limited intervention, taken with a light touch by a country long accused of pursuing a neo-colonial Françafrique policy since the 1960s, Hollande’s action looks for now to have been very successful in stabilizing Mali — Mali’s newly elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was sworn in yesterday.   Continue reading French debate on Syria intervention highlights Sarkozy legacy on world affairs

On Europe, the real question for the UK is whether it wants separation or divorce


This morning, Michael Geary and I argue at the Brussels-based E!Sharp for a new way to think about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union.European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Amid all of the discussion of British prime minister David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate certain opt-outs (on immigration or justice, perhaps) from the rest of the European Union and to hold an ‘in-or-out’ referendum if he wins reelection in May 2015, the question is typically framed as ‘should Britain stay in the European Union?’

But on the basis of 40 years of British membership in the European Union, it seems clearer that the United Kingdom has already left the European Union in a meaningful sense, and even when it entered what was then the European Economic Community, it was never incredibly keen with the concept of ever closer union.

Alternatively, policymakers should concede the reality of British reluctance for more cooperation and frame the question in terms of whether the British should seek an informal separation or a formal divorce:

But as European citizens ponder the consequences of whether the British people will vote to end what’s been a dysfunctional four-decade relationship with the European Union, the question of whether Britain is going to leave the EU has become redundant — Britain, in many ways, has been leaving the Union since virtually the day it became a member.  Accordingly, the real question for British and Europe is whether the British will opt for a separation or for a divorce. We argue that separation, a detailed membership renegotiation, is the better option for both sides rather than a complete exit….

[With] British public opinion increasingly inclined to leave the European Union, it is even more important to frame the question of Britain’s relationship with Europe in realistic terms, however difficult that may be to accept.  While the terms of separation of British association with many core aspects of the European Union may be difficult for European leaders to stomach, it may be the best alternative to a more formal divorce that seems likely to happen if policymakers in London, Brussels and Berlin continue to deny the reality that British-EU relations will never be — and never have been — amorous.