REVIEW: Article

The New Openness in US-French Relations

Franco-American relations entered a new, distinctly more open phase with the inauguration of President Nicolas Sarkozy on May 16, 2007. Although the bilateral relationship under President Jacques Chirac was never as bad as characterized by the media, Sarkozy—with a forward-looking vision for his country—has assembled a pragmatic team, not concerned about placing France as a counterweight to US power.

The seventh President of France since the 1958 inauguration of the Fifth Republic under General De Gaulle, Sarkozy is not France’s youngest head of state in the modern era. (That distinction belongs to Valerie Giscard d’Estaing.). Nonetheless, his energy and dynamism combined with broad and deep experience at the top levels of policymaking— including jobs as Government Spokesman, Finance Minister, and Interior Minister—are shaking up French politics. Some media have dubbed Sarkozy the “hyper-President,” and the whirlwind of social and economic legislation passed during his first few months in office reinforces the reputation.

Sarkozy’s cabinet itself reflects a break with France’s past politics. He has selected more women—they head seven of 15 major ministries including the powerful Finance, Interior, and Justice slots—and more representatives of minorities for his government than any previous French President.

The conservative Sarkozy also has reached across party lines to France’s Socialists and centrists. He selected Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the telegenic Socialist co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, to be his Foreign Minister. He also nominated Former Finance Minister and Socialist party stalwart Dominique Strauss-Kahn to be managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Sarkozy’s Defense Minister, Hervé Morin, hails from the centrist Union for French Democracy.

Publicly breaking with summer holiday traditions of French heads of state, President Sarkozy took his family and friends to New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. He explained that by vacationing in the United States, he was only doing what some 900,000 other Frenchmen did every year.

There is no denying that Sarkozy is at ease with President George Bush. After first meeting in Washington in fall 2006, their personal chemistry and rapport was apparent at their August 2007 luncheon in Kennebunkport. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has confirmed that the two Presidents “get on extremely well.” 

Proud to recount that some call him “Sarkozy, the American,” the new President’s evidently pro-US sympathies clearly have not hurt his standing with the French public. His approval ratings remain at very high levels. 

Among US policymakers, these changes have attracted more than the usual interest in a newly-elected government. In the months since Sarkozy took office, the American Embassy in Paris has welcomed numerous official visitors. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came for D-Day commemorations, the first American Defense Secretary to visit Paris since October 1997. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice followed a few weeks later. Then in July, US Chief Justice John Roberts and three Associate Justices visited France, the first official visit of a sitting Chief Justice since 1799. Subsequently, we have hosted Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and FBI Director Robert Mueller and other US officials at all levels. This year’s Paris Air Show, where American participation broke all records—27 flag-ranked officers up from zero in 2003—was another sign of the revived closeness and shared interests of the United States and France.

However tempting it is to think that all is well with Sarkozy in and Chirac out, that would oversimplify a complex diplomatic alliance that Colin Powell once likened to being in 225 years of marriage counseling. My view is that, although US-French relations went through a rocky period in the 2003 run-up to the Iraq War, things were never as bad as portrayed in the media. 

Under President Chirac’s administration, we always enjoyed excellent cooperation on counterterrorism and nonproliferation, and in military-to-military relations. In the Balkans, the United States and France have both supported the independence of Kosovo. We worked closely with France on Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and both our countries pressed for implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1757 calling for an international tribunal to investigate Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. France has contributed significantly in support of the Government of Afghanistan. We also welcomed France’s leadership in the EU-3 negotiations with Iran. 

That Sarkozy brings a new spirit to US-French relations should obscure neither our longstanding cooperation, nor France’s insistence on the independence of its foreign policy. The new President has been careful to note that there will inevitably be differences between us. Speaking at the annual conference of French Ambassadors in Paris in August, President Sarkozy said, “I believe that the friendship between the United States and France is as important today as it has been over the last two centuries. ‘Allied’ does not mean ‘aligned,’ and I feel free to express our agreements and disagreements forthrightly and candidly—precisely because I fully embrace the fact that France is a friend and an ally of the United States.” Indeed, he displayed that candor in the first speech following his election victory, when he urged the United States to take on a greater leadership role in the area of climate change.

While we can’t change our history of differences over Iraq, we need France to play a positive role in promoting regional support aimed at bolstering Iraq’s sovereignty and national reconciliation. In Foreign Minister Kouchner’s August 19-21 visit to Baghdad, and in subsequent meetings and other fora, France has signaled that it is ready to play such a role. 

On Iran’s nuclear ambitions, President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner both have called that country’s development of nuclear weapons capability “unacceptable,” and spoken out in favor of negotiations backed by stiffer sanctions. 

Kouchner, in a September 20 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, cited the need to “transform multipolarity into effective multi-lateralism.” We agree. The optimism about what we can achieve together is driven as much by the Sarkozy government’s renewed trust in the bilateral relationship as by a sense of pragmatism and realism about the crises and challenges—in Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Darfur, Kosovo, and on climate change—facing our two countries.

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United States Ambassador to France