In the immediate years following 9/11, the news media could always rely on a leading French politician for a sneering, headline-grabbing quote on America's supposedly weakened standing in the world. Following decades of tradition, former President Jacques Chirac turned anti-Americanism into a chic art form, rarely resisting a dig at the U.S.-led war on the terror and American foreign policy. His foreign minister and later prime minister, the effete and pompous poetry-writing Dominique de Villepin, was even worse, famously refusing to say which side he backed during the U.S.-British-led invasion of Iraq.
There was however hope in Washington for a sea-change in U.S.-French relations, and an end to the tedious dribble of anti-American rhetoric coming out of Paris, when the relatively pro-American Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in May last year. On some issues, Sarkozy has been a breath of fresh air. He has been a strong U.S. ally on the Iranian nuclear question, strongly condemning the nuclear ambitions of Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has dropped the kind of confrontational language toward Washington that was the hallmark of the Chirac era, and was given a standing ovation when he addressed a joint session of Congress last November. There is indeed a lot of goodwill in the White House towards an outwardly friendly French President whom some State Department officials view as a more important friend than low-key British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The naïve illusion though that a U.S.-French alliance could ever replace the Anglo-American Special Relationship should be laid to rest by an interview last week by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner with the International Herald Tribune. Kouchner, a maverick socialist and human rights campaigner drafted into the Sarkozy cabinet, made a series of comments that would not have looked out of place in the fiercely anti-American administrations of Jacques Chirac or Francois Mitterrand. In a thinly-veiled attack on the United States that will damage relations between Paris and Washington, Kouchner stated that in the wake of the Iraq war, America's reputation "will never be as it was before", and that "the magic is over." The French foreign minister also controversially called for diplomatic engagement with terrorist group Hamas, stating that "we have to talk with our enemies."
Kouchner's undiplomatic comments reflect a continuing undercurrent of arrogant condescension within France's foreign policy and political establishment towards the United States. Despite the Sarkozy revolution in Paris, the fact remains that French elites still view the U.S. (and her closest ally Great Britain) with disdain, and more often than not as a competitor rather than an ally on the world stage. There remain huge differences between the U.S. and France on many major foreign policy questions, from the future of the Middle East to global warming to the war against Islamic terrorism. Under Sarkozy, the French have barely offered to lift a finger to assist with the U.S.-led war against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and in Afghanistan France has just 1,500 troops, most of them well away from the war zone, compared to 8,500 British soldiers fighting against the Taliban in the south.
Sarkozy's government is dangling the possibility of a French return to NATO's command structure and additional troops for Afghanistan, but is likely to insist on U.S. support for a separate European Union defense structure in return, i.e. a direct competitor to NATO that will rip the transatlantic alliance apart. Like Chirac before him, Sarkozy supports the principle of 'ever closer union' in Europe, and is a committed supporter of the new European Union Reform Treaty (almost identical to the failed EU Constitution) which in effect is a blueprint for a European superstate. The Reform Treaty will significantly undermine the principle of national sovereignty in Europe, and threatens the future of the transatlantic alliance.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, promised not only a pro-Atlanticist foreign policy, but also represented the best hope for French political reform since the publication of Alexis De Tocqueville's L'Ancien Regime in 1856. He vowed to transform France from a backward-looking, outdated, rapidly declining country into a modern, globally focused nation. In almost messianic terms, he pledged a break with the past and a new era for the French people.
In practice however, there has been little evidence of real change from the Chirac era. Sarkozy has been a striking disappointment on the domestic front, and apart from a plan to transform France's almost medieval taxi licensing laws, has shown little inclination for implementing Anglo-Saxon reforms. The lack of economic liberty in France continues to drive entrepreneurs out of the country. Several hundred thousand of the best and brightest in the French workforce have fled France in recent years for Britain and other English-speaking countries, and that trend will continue.
France currently ranks 48th in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, behind developing countries such as Barbados, Georgia, El Salvador and Botswana, and places 25th out of 41 European nations. Sarkozy has shown little appetite for de-regulating the French labor market, lifting restrictions on foreign investment, reforming the tax code, or completely scrapping the 35-hour working week, all necessary if there is to be real change in an economy with 9.5 percent unemployment.
In addition, the new French government has done little to rein in government spending, which currently accounts for a staggering 53.8 percent of GDP. Sarkozy has also demonstrated a willingness to support a range of protectionist measures aimed at defending French companies from global competition, and has continued Paris's traditional support for the EU Common Agricultural Policy, the world's biggest agricultural subsidy racket, which hugely benefits French farmers.
As an international leader, President Sarkozy has been a high profile and eloquent statesman, at times outclassing his nearest European rivals Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He deserves credit for personally rejecting the venomous rhetoric of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. But it is an illusion to believe that the specter of anti-Americanism no longer haunts the corridors of the new French administration, or that the Sarkozy government has embarked upon a significantly different foreign policy. As Kouchner's remarks showed, disdain for 'les Americains' is ever present in the French foreign ministry, and on many key issues France remains a competitor or even adversary, and not an ally.
French anti-Americanism should be viewed not as a sign of confidence but as a display of insecurity and weakness. Even with the election of Sarkozy, France remains a country in steep decline, with a backward socialist economy and mindset that would not look out of place in some third world nations. Embarrassingly, France is the only major Western European society that actually produces economic refugees rather than attracts them.
On the world stage, Paris may talk big, but wields little military clout. It increasingly seeks to exert soft power influence through supranational institutions such as the EU and the UN, often with the aim of constraining America's ability to act. The French continue to cling to delusions of grandeur regarding their global role, but remain firmly entrenched in the shadow of the United States. And, as the extraordinary success of the U.S.-led surge against al-Qaeda in Iraq has demonstrated, for the world's only superpower the magic is far from over.
Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
First appeared in Human Evens