On foreign affairs as with domestic issues, Nicolas Sarkozy has hit the ground running. Even more than four months in power since his inauguration on 16 May 2007, France's new president seems to be engaged in a political marathon that is being sustained at a hectic, sprinting pace. The rhythm is indeed relentless: day after day after day, he adds another initiative or two (political, social, cultural, environmental or diplomatic) to the growing pile; and, as if that is not enough, tosses out promises (usually in front of the TV cameras, usually in response to the latest whim of public opinion). Everything he says or does is about "rupture" - that is, about breaking with a French past he regards as sterile and suffocating, not least under his predecessor and once-mentor, Jacques Chirac.
It is too soon to say whether all these changes will be fundamental or cosmetic. But what is already clear is that France's diplomacy is experimenting with a sea-change, led by a new captain. A vision of France's independence (from the United States as from Nato, whose integrated structures France left in 1966) has prevailed under successive presidents - including Charles de Gaulle (who took the Nato decision), Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. Under Nicolas Sarkozy, its days are gone.
As the socialist former foreign minister Hubert Védrine has said: for the first time since the 1950s, Atlanticism is back at the helm in France. In a recent report to Sarkozy, Vedrine also advised France to pursue a more "modest" diplomacy.
Patrice de Beer is former London and
Washington correspondent for Le Monde.
Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:
"Why is the left so gauche?" (26 February 2007)
"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality" (2 April 2007)
"France's intellectual election" (16 April 2007)
"France's choice: the Bayrou factor" (24 April 2007)
"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution" (8 May 2007)
"Le Monde's democratic coup" (30 May 2007)
"A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007)
"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007)
"The French temptation" (31 August 2007)
A change of style is definitely in the air, but also a change of substance on a topic - the defence of France's grandeur - which had long made France feel "special" but had also long been consensual and popular. Indeed, it had been unquestioned across the political spectrum, from left to right; apart from a sprinkle of obscure politicians, only two public figures had dared criticise Chirac's highly popular hostility to George W Bush and Tony Blair's war in Iraq.
The first is Bernard Kouchner, the "French doctor" who founded Médecins Sans Frontières and fathered the concept of the "right to intervene" when human rights were crushed in distant lands; he had also openly supported the war against Saddam Hussein (while later distancing himself the way it was conducted after the fall of Baghdad).
The second is Nicolas Sarkozy himself, who (as French interior minister) visited President Bush in 2006 and expressed his shame at Chirac's Iraq policy as well as his sympathy for the president of a country "so successful and so misunderstood" (see "Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate", 20 December 2006). No surprise, then, that "Sarko"'s first initiative in opening his government to those outside his rightwing majority was to invite his fellow Atlanticist, Kouchner (with whom he shares a commitment to supporting Israel as well as views on Iraq) to be his minister of foreign affairs; no surprise too that Kouchner agreed, despite his long and close relationship with France's Parti socialiste.
The Iran test
The clearest evidence of a new Sarkozian vision of French diplomacy, one that brings it closer to the United States, lies in the president's remarks on two issues: Iran's nuclear ambitions and the future of Nato. In a speech to French ambassadors on 27 August 2007, Sarkozy delivered a warning that the nuclear crisis with Iran was the most serious in the world today (more so, apparently, than the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the crisis in Lebanon); and that, in the event diplomacy failed, the world and France would be "facing a disastrous alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran".
He did not mention that the other regional nuclear power, Pakistan, is threatened by domestic Islamists supported by al-Qaida. Indeed, no one in Washington, London or Paris mentions the Pakistani precedent and its potential threat for the region; nor India's nuclear policy (even though both countries have - unlike Iran - never bothered to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty).
Bernard Kouchner is prone to get carried away both by his enthusiasm and his craving for media attention. One or both of these traits may have been on display when he went as far (on a radio and TV interview in Paris on 16 September, ahead of a visit to Russia) as to invoke the possibility of war with Iran over its nuclear ambitions: "We will negotiate until the end, he said on television. And, at the same time, we must get ready (...) It is necessary to be prepared for the worst. And the worst means war".
Kouchner quickly back-pedalled - denying he was a "warmonger", and insisting on his readiness to "negotiate, negotiate and negotiate" with the Iranians at any point (and in Tehran if need be). But the meaning of the message to the mullahs' regime remains the same: the acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons is as unacceptable to Paris as it is to London or Washington.
His boss Sarkozy then went a step further by asking his European colleagues to impose a new set of sanctions on Iran in order to bypass a United Nations Security Council decision (even though China and Russia's veto make their adoption, to say the least, unlikely).
If the traditional French arrogance remains and "Sarko" looks as much at ease in putting pressure on his European colleagues to follow French unilateral initiatives as were his Gaullist predecessors like General de Gaulle or Jacques Chirac, his unabashed closeness to America and her values,including its TV series, is quite new in French politics.
In respect of Nato, Sarkozy is keen on a full return to the integrated structures of an organisation France (under de Gaulle) had left in 1966. He has called for France to play "her full role" in the Atlantic alliance. His defence minister Hervé Morin has added that if France is one of Nato's best pupils she is not drawing from it all the benefits she feels entitled to. The new president is also keener to have Nato concentrate more on military issues and not growing global.
The wind of war
Nicolas Sarkozy evidently wishes to avoid appearing as subservient to Washington as, for instance, Tony Blair was. He has publicly fixed his own limits to the French-American alliance - by pushing for stronger measures against global warming or by saying (in his first speech after being elected) that if France was America's closest ally, her support could not be taken for granted on all issues.
Sarkozy's hard line is likely to please a Bush administration which is short of foreign friends while domestic opposition to the war in Iraq keeps growing. His position on Iran, while toughening, remains that diplomacy is still the priority of the day and that all steps must be taken to avoid war; but it is nevertheless moving closer to Washington's strategy to put all options - including war - on the table. True, there is an Iranian threat which could destabilise the whole middle east and spread to the rest of the world, but the new French diplomacy seems to have shifted from its traditional multilateralism towards unilateralism a la Bush.
Sarkozy's own visit to Russia on 9-10 October for talks with Vladimir Putin confirmed France's new alignment. "Between resignation and war (with Iran)", he told Russia's media, "there is a responsible stance: toughening sanctions with the aim of bringing Iran to its senses. We are talking about protecting our security from the danger of nuclear proliferation. I will not give ground on an issue which is of such great importance."
Didier Billion of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (Iris) says in the context of sanctions not under the United Nations's umbrella that France is moving closer than ever to the radical positions adopted by leading figures within the Bush administration.
French public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq and remains widely hostile to the United States president. So far, it has not reacted decisively to these threats of war. President Sarkozy, opinion polls notwithstanding, can still draw on widespread support, and the political opposition to him remains hopelessly divided. But if the middle- east situation were to deteriorate even further with the threat of an American or Israeli military intervention in Iran, this could change rapidly. The French president could then be faced with a difficult choice.