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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Shift Tempered by Circumstance

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By late Sunday, conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy looked to be on his way to winning the French presidential election. Although belonging to President Jacques Chirac's party, Sarkozy might adopt a different approach to foreign affairs. Contrary to a 50-year Gaullist tradition of strategic autonomy from the United States, he made significant moves toward a trans-Atlantic approach.

While Chirac built an alliance with President Vladimir Putin and has notoriously bad relations with U.S. President George W. Bush, Sarkozy has showed himself reluctant when it comes to Bush-bashing, a French national sport since the beginning of the Iraq war. During a visit to Washington in September, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy was criticized by both opponents and fellow Cabinet ministers for abandoning the official line and embarking on his own policy. During the visit, Sarkozy said, "When I think that those who disapprove of my visit with Bush are the same ones who would shake hands with Putin, I have to laugh to myself." The signs were clearly there that the French-Russian relationship might be strongly affected with Sarkozy as president.

Even though he has since introdeuced a few nuances to his pro-U.S. position, recent statements continue to suggest he could forge tighter links with the United States while establishing greater distance from Russia. "If you want to know which I feel closer to -- the United States or Russia, which we saw in action in Chechnya -- I would have to say the United States," Sarkozy said in April. Since the first Chechen war in 1994, the French media and people in general have tended to find fault with the Kremlin's approach in the republic. The government, conversely, has adopted a careful position, maintaining the official line that Chechnya is a Russian internal affair. Chirac, who was first elected in 1995 and has been responsible for his country's official diplomatic line during his presidency, was often criticized for his silence on the issue, despite his good relations with Boris Yeltsin and Putin. The nature of Sarkozy's reference to Chechnya sends a different signal.

How much of a shift could come under Sarkozy? A closer look at the presidential election campaign provides some insight.

Before his official nomination as the candidate from Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement, Sarkozy had to beat off challenges from two rivals: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and, until recently, the president himself. Chirac had been considering running for a third term, but he finally abandoned the idea in early 2007, when polls made it clear he stood little chance of success.

Both Chirac and Villepin played significant roles in the creation of the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis in the lead up to the Iraq war. In charge of foreign affairs from 2002 to 2004, Villepin worked hand in hand with Chirac to create an alliance with Putin and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schr?der. A speech at the United Nations in 2003 opposing the war raised his popularity to the point that he was made prime minister in 2005 and became a serious potential presidential candidate.

Both Villepin and Chirac had a strong background in foreign affairs, which is a presidential prerogative under the French Constitution. To strengthen his candidacy, Sarkozy not only had to prove his competence in this area, but also to stake out a distinctive position.

As a result, his whole campaign has been based on the idea of a rupture with the past and distancing himself from Chirac's legacy. Chirac's diplomatic tack has generally garnered him support from the French and has been the highest-profile characteristic of his time in office. To be consistent with his own strategy, Sarkozy had to show his difference on this field. As a result, this provided Sarkozy with his greatest opportunity to portray himself as the candidate of the future, and not of the past.

A more pro-U.S. stance has helped Sarkozy in another way. By stating his intention to change the "French model," Sarkozy has borrowed generously from U. S. rhetoric, regularly using the term "dream," and from Bush's brand of compassionate conservatism in particular. As a result, Sarkozy's policies sometimes appear close to those of U.S. Republicans.

This does not, however, mean that he will be looking to earn the nickname "Bush's lapdog," as he has been labeled on occasion by his opponents. The key words of his political agenda have included sovereignty and a strong national identity. "I tell great powers, including the United States, that they are mistaken in not signing the Kyoto Protocol and that they are wrong in Iraq," he said at a news conference this month. But his record as interior minister might raise questions as to his concerns over the Kyoto Protocol or human rights issues.

But while his campaign suggests a strong affinity with the conservative end of the U.S. political spectrum, his approach also has much in common with Putin on questions of domestic and foreign policy. His emphasis on economic patriotism and public order have more in common with Putin's approach to governing than to Bush's vision of a global democratic order. In the field of foreign policy, Sarkozy is not a neoconservative but a realist.

Talking about the United States, he has said, "We have common values, such as democracy." But beyond those common values lies a deep understanding of national interest and a strong concern with public security, which he shares with Putin. So there is a greater likelihood that purely pragmatic considerations will place business interests ahead of those related to human rights, while maintaining public order and security means not alienating France's Muslim minority by getting too close to Bush.

So Chirac's departure could cool French-Russian relations, but it is important not to overestimate the magnitude of the change. Chirac's internationalism was basically an attempt to boost French interests. Sarkozy will continue on this track, but using a different language that could diminish the risk of misunderstandings.

Richard Robert is the author of "The Possibility of a Center" and a founding member of the Telos think tank in Paris.