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France: Sarkozy Strikes Tough Tone Toward Iran, Russia

Sarkozy was giving his first major speech on foreign policy since being elected president in May (file) (AFP) August 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In his first major foreign-policy speech as French president, Nicolas Sarkozy said that an Iran with nuclear weapons was unacceptable.

And he warned that Iran could be attacked militarily if it did not meet its international obligations to curb its nuclear program.

"An Iran with nuclear arms is, to me, unacceptable, and I am weighing my words." Sarkozy told members of France’s diplomatic corps on August 27. "And I underline France's full determination to support the alliance's current policy of increasing sanctions, but also to remain open if Iran makes the choice to fulfill its obligations. This policy is the only one that will allow us to escape an alternative, which I consider to be catastrophic. Which alternative? An Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

"It's not what he said. It's the way he said it. The basics of the policy actually haven't changed." -- Francois Heisbourg

To be clear, Sarkozy did not advocate bombing Iran. Nor did he indicate France would be involved, if it came to that.

But the mere fact that he brought up the possibility of military intervention and that he advocated stronger sanctions against Tehran, was a departure from the tone and policy of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy also had harsh words for Russia's Vladimir Putin, saying the Kremlin was imposing its return on the world scene by playing its assets, notably oil and gas, with a certain “brutality.”

Different Tone

Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris who is writing a book on Iran’s nuclear program, says what struck him most about Sarkozy’s speech was not the substance, but the tone.

"It's not what he said. It's the way he said it. The basics of the policy actually haven't changed," he says.

As Heisbourg points out, the United States, France, and Britain have been coordinating their policies on Iran at the United Nations for quite a long time. Sarkozy did not propose any radical, concrete changes to Paris’s policy on Iran.

In other parts of his speech, in fact, Sarkozy stuck to long-standing French foreign policy. He again criticized the U.S.-led war in Iraq, called for the European Union to become a first-rate world power, and assailed the lack of U.S. leadership on the environment.

Heisbourg says Sarkozy’s speech should not be interpreted as being decidedly pro-American. In short, Sarkozy is not a new Tony Blair.

"I think it would be a mistake to assume that the intention is to do that," Heisbourg says. "There is no particular motive for a French president, however well disposed he is vis-a-vis the Americans, to be seen moving toward an 'American line.' Sarkozy thinks what he thinks for reasons of his own and not for reasons of a strategic partnership with an outgoing, largely discredited American administration. It wouldn't make any sense either in terms of domestic French politics or even in terms of French-American relations."

Balancing Act

But tone and gestures matter in politics. And what Sarkozy was indicating in his address is that he is his own man and he enjoys breaking stereotypes.

He likes to express support for Israel while at the same time seeking close ties with Arab nations. He wants France to be a strong power but he also sees the United States as a friend. He is not too keen on subtle diplomacy and prefers a frank exchange of views -- as with Russia.

So far, his balancing act seems to be working. Sarkozy’s words have been welcomed in the United States and the French too have responded positively to the August 27 speech, according to Heisbourg.

"It's been well received, to a large extent, because he stated clearly what is French foreign policy -- not American foreign policy," he says. "When there's agreement with the U.S., that's fine. When there's no agreement with the U.S., that's fine too. Can we agree to disagree? Sure we can. And that may be the big difference [compared to] Chirac, in which Bush and Chirac found it practically impossible for quite some time to agree to disagree -- to have civilized relations despite the fact that one doesn't agree on every issue."

Battling Nuclear Proliferation

Battling Nuclear Proliferation

A nuclear-capable, short-range missile on display in Islamabad, Pakistan, in March (AFP)

IS PROLIFERATION INEVITABLE? On June 18, RFE/RL hosted a briefing featuring Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Sokolski discussed the challenges to the global nonproliferation regime and what Western countries can do to strengthen it.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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