May 10, 2007

May 10, 2007 | Commentary on

Sarkozy's victory

Are we in for a new day in U.S.-European relations? Sunday's convincing victory by Nicolas Sarkozy in France's presidential election suggests as much. Mr. Sarkozy has been unabashedly pro-American in his campaign and his victory speech. "I want to issue an appeal to our American friends, to tell them that they can count on our friendship, which has been forged in the tragedies of history which we have faced together," he said on Sunday. 

Then he went on to call for American leadership -- in a cause that unfortunately has by now just about achieved the status of religion in Europe. "I want to tell them that France will always be by their side when they need it, but I also want to tell them that friendship means accepting that your friends may think differently and that a great nation such as the United States has a duty not to put obstacles in the way of the fight against global warming, but on the contrary to take the lead in this fight, because what is at stake is the fate of humanity as a whole. France will make this battle its primary battle." 

There are other causes that one might have preferred for Mr. Sarkozy's clarion call to American leadership -- global terrorism, for instance, or political freedom, or even an end to world hunger, which would be easier to achieve than changing the climate of the earth by any measurable degree. 

Still, his attitude, which differs immensely from that of the traditional French political elite, is refreshing, and it does not seem to have hurt his support among ordinary French voters. It certainly makes for a refreshing difference from sitting President Jacques Chirac and his controversial prime minister (former foreign minister), Dominique de Villepin -- a man who worshiped Napoleon and disdained the United States and whose vanity seemed to know no bounds. By actively opposing the Iraq war at the U.N. Security Council, and by constantly touting Europe (and France) as counterweights to American power in the world, Messrs. Chirac and de Villepin did enormous damage to the centuries-old Franco-American alliance. 

A welcome sea change in trans-Atlantic relations has been under way since Angela Merkel rose to the chancellorship of Germany in 2006. Even though the conservative Mrs. Merkel presides over a divided government, whose foreign policy is in the hands of the Social Democrats, she has personally achieved a much more cordial relationship with President Bush, a man who sets great store by personal connections. 

Furthermore, since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the helm at the State Department in the second Bush administration, the U.S. side has made an effort to reach out to Europe as well. Sometimes, in fact, one wonders if Mr. Bush and Miss Rice are bending over backwards. At last week's U.S.-EU summit here in Washington, the president was talking about a new U.S.-EU global partnership. That is a real reach for an administration that has otherwise been accustomed to looking for allies among individual European nations. 

One more factor needs to be considered. Britain, which under Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the most reliable major European ally of the United States, is about to undergo political changes of its own. Tomorrow, Mr. Blair is expected to announce his resignation. This will precipitate a leadership contest within the Labor Party, which is overwhelmingly likely to be won at the party convention in July by his anointed successor Gordon Brown. Mr. Brown is Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, or, in American terms, treasury secretary. How Mr. Brown handles the relationship with the United States will be interesting to see. He seems personally well-disposed, and is known to vacation on Martha's Vineyard. 

A word of caveat will be in order, however, about Mr. Sarkozy. As Atlanticist as he is, he must be seen as also very European in outlook. Mr. Sarkozy is dedicated to the expansion of the European Union, has proposed a treaty revision that will allow the union to expand beyond its current 27 members and has promised to restore France to its leadership position within Europe. He has proposed withholding EU subsidies from new EU members that practice tax competition with "old Europe." And he opposes membership for Turkey of the European Union. 

Furthermore, Mr. Sarkozy will also have to deal with the French political establishment ensconced in the foreign and defense ministries as he seeks to repair Franco-American relations. Still, for now, a note of optimism is surely in order.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in the Washington Times