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Hubert Védrine on France's Atlantist 'Temptation': Excerpts from the Védrine Report

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007

PARIS -- There has been much talk of late of impending "changes" in French foreign policy. New French President Nicolas Sarkozy's programmatic speech last month on foreign policy matters -- and especially his remarks on the "unacceptability" of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons -- first spurred such discussions. Then came the publication last week of former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine's commissioned report to the French President on globalization and French foreign policy.

Védrine, a Socialist, served as Foreign Minister from 1997-2002 in the government of Lionel Jospin, in which capacity he famously qualified American counter-terrorism efforts in the aftermath of 9/11 as "simplistic." At roughly the same time, in early 2002, he again courted controversy by dismissing concerns about a series of anti-Semitic attacks in France with the words: "One shouldn't necessarily be surprised that young French people from immigrant families feel compassion for the Palestinians and get agitated when they see what is happening."

English-language coverage of the Védrine's report to Nicolas Sarkozy highlighted his recommendation that French foreign policy adopt a more "modest" tone: a seeming "concession" that some commentators interpreted as further evidence of a potential warming of Franco-American relations. The following passage, in particular, has been widely quoted:

As surprising as it may seem at a time when our country has just emerged from a long period of self-doubt and it has underestimated itself as "medium-sized" power, it continues to be regarded as "arrogant" in a large part of the world.

But what was, above all, overlooked in the English-language reports is that in recommending a change -- merely -- of "tone" in French foreign policy, Védrine was in fact calling for an essential continuity of substance. Far from foretelling an Atlantist turn in French foreign policy, moreover, Védrine's report identifies the prospect of closer relations with the United States as a "temptation" threatening French independence: a temptation that Védrine -- who is known to have a penchant for coinages -- dubs the "Atlantist/Westernist" temptation. Védrine also identifies a second current of thought allegedly challenging traditional French Foreign policy: what he calls the "Europeist" current. But the latter is clearly introduced into the report as a foil for his discussion of the "Atlantis/Westernist" current, which, he says ominously, "retains all of its ambitions."

World Politics Review here presents translated extracts from Hubert Védrine's report to the French President. Readers will be able to judge for themselves the degree of "modesty" they exhibit. The italicized titles are provided by WPR. The page numbers refer to the pdf-version of the Védrine report published on the Web site of the French Presidency.

John Rosenthal


Recommendation for how France should respond to the challenges of globalization

It [France] conducts and inspires on the European level a much more offensive policy of protection, of solidarity and of regulation, such that Europe becomes the regulator of the global[ized] world. [p. 9]


We should make the European Union the most effective level of action in the process of globalization: the regulating power par excellence. [p. 26]

On the "Atlantist/Westernist" temptation to change French foreign policy

Nonetheless, in the France of 2007 one senses that there is a much stronger temptation [than the "Europeist" temptation] -- a temptation that is at once new and old -- to call into question French foreign policy: the "Westernist" temptation. [p. 35]

. . . What are the principle axes of the advocates of this "Westernist" reorientation, who typically do not show their true colors -- apart from a few isolated intellectuals trying to be provocative -- but present themselves rather under the comforting façade of a "modernization" (yet another!) of [French] foreign policy?

The first is the postulate of "common values" shared by Europe and the United States. There may be temporary disagreements with George Bush (and not even this is possible for all the members of this current of thought), but basically we are all supposed to be democracies under siege by the terrorists and threatened by China: the new "free world," in effect. The question as to whether recent American policy has not precisely increased such risks is not even posed by the defenders of this line. It follows that we should not unnecessarily criticize the United States, nor take our distance from the United States "for the pleasure of doing so." According to a well know schema, not opposing the United States without valid grounds becomes: not opposing the United States at all. Suspicion is thereby cast on a whole segment of French foreign policy, a whole heritage of French foreign policy -- tone, initiatives, methods, partnerships -- and even in those cases in which France evidently was right. . . . [p. 36]

According to the logic of this current of thought -- which is strong in the UMP [the party of Nicolas Sarkozy] and the world of industry and of defense, present in the PS [the Socialist Party], and significant in the media -- the particular position of France in NATO is a "problem." Up to now, the first four successors of General de Gaulle have preserved the essence of the decision that he was compelled to take following eight years of fruitless negotiations with the United States: to remove France from the obligation of any automatic military engagement [in NATO], while remaining, needless to say, in the alliance. If this question has not been the subject of public debate -- neither during the election campaign, nor since the election of President Sarkozy -- the temptation of a return to NATO well and truly exists. [p. 37]

. . . The point of principle [favoring a "return" to NATO] -- the question of Western solidarity [la cohérence occidentale] -- cannot be evaluated in terms of costs and benefits precisely because it is a point of principle, virtually a matter of doctrine. It is justified if France thinks of itself as, above all, a Western country, rather than first and foremost European or unique. [p. 38]

. . . One needs to ask what would be the price to pay for such a development [i.e. a "return" to NATO]. First, on the domestic scene. A part of public opinion -- and perhaps not only on the Left -- would be opposed or, in any case, would not understand the need for the change. At a time when the outgoing Bush administration has made the United States more unpopular than ever before in the world, what interest could there be in reviving such a polemic? The question could be posed differently -- perhaps -- after 2009.

On the international scene, such a development would provoke the enthusiasm of the American media and elected representatives: General de Gaulle has been forgotten, France has become a reliable ally again, France will help us in Iraq and elsewhere, etc. There would be satisfaction in Israel for the same reasons. A more ambivalent satisfaction in Great Britain. . . . Everywhere else, France would be considered to have realigned her policy to that of the United States and would be treated accordingly. The other world powers, established or emerging, would coldly take note of this development: Even if it had often proved illusory to attempt to contain [canaliser] or counterbalance the United States, in any case it would no longer be worthwhile to try to do so with the help of France and hence to promote France politically or favor France economically to this end.

For all other countries that are not world powers, at least some 150, the development would be perceived as the loss of a source of support in the U.N. and in the WTO and of a defender of their interests in the IMF, the World Bank and the G-8. But normal countries, much more so than world powers, have to be realistic and they will have soon found other sources of support. [pp. 38-39]

Next Page: On the reform of NATO . . .

On  a "reform" of NATO that would make a "return" more attractive for France

What would this "new NATO" be?

-- An organization that would accept debate in its midst among allies (and not among vassals) about strategic and tactical options: for instance, about the future of dissuasion and the proper combination of defense and dissuasion. . . .

-- An organization that would clarify its geographical area: Its role and its missions have become unclear since they have been constantly extended. Since the end of the U.S.S.R., the United States and various lobbies of other countries that are influential in Washington have pushed for an enlargement of NATO in order to bring about the containment of [achever de refouler] Russia, to surround Russia with a network of countries newly allied to the Westerners, or to deal with the terrorist threat and increase American influence. . . . Moreover, American and Western reactions and case-by-case engagements -- in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan -- seem to have transformed NATO. . . . into the military arm of Western security of all sorts.

This has grave consequences for the perception of the West by "the rest" and for our strategic position in the world of the emerging poles of power. [pp. 39-40]

On the American missile shield project

In theory, missile shields weaken the credibility of dissuasion and that is why there was an ABM Treaty from 1972 to 2001. But there is the risk that a missile will be fired accidentally (?), that some regimes are not susceptible to the threat of retaliatory attacks (?), that certain threats could emanate from non-territorial entities that could not be targeted in turn because they have no fixed address (?) -- and all these risks have come to obsess the West (and some other countries) ever since . . . it defeated the U.S.S.R. The victor is worried. And, above all, as Z. Brzezinski has always explained, the United States wants to have more security than everyone else and to dispose of every possible system of defense, attack and dissuasion. [pp. 40-41; the question marks are Védrine's]

. . . But is it necessary to throw oneself into all of this [the missile shield project] just to intercept the missiles possibly fired by an Iranian regime supposedly bent on suicide and which, moreover, will undoubtedly have changed before the missile shield is operational? [p. 41]

On the American-led intervention in Iraq (which Védrine claims certain members of the French elites continue to support)

In reality, the American intervention was doomed to failure on account of the sophism that considered that too much importance was being attached to the Palestinian problem and that it was the Arab countries that had to be changed first, whether voluntarily or by the use of force (the neoconservative theory and Likud). This was combined with the simplistic belief that democracy could be imposed from the outside as in Germany or Japan in 1945. . . . [p. 42]

On French foreign policy during the Cold War and today

During [the Cold War], while loyally assuming its responsibilities toward its allies in the Atlantic Alliance in times of crisis, France esteemed that it was consistent with its history, its geography, its interests and its ideals to employ a certain freedom of action in the East and the South. It was well served by this choice: as were Europe and the world. [p. 43]

. . . France would be taking an enormous risk in leaving its foreign policy to a new Western Holy Alliance that is genetically pre-programmed to seek confrontation with non-Western poles [of power] for reasons related to ideology, security, energy or other considerations: an alliance led by a United States that cannot be influenced from the outside and that is subject to excesses of adventurism. [pp. 43-44]

On the "War on Terror"

Either we accept the analysis of the Bush administration: there is a global phenomenon of terrorism against Westerners, Israelis and some allies of the United States and the response to this phenomenon is a "war on terror." This "war on terror" represents the sole aim around which all foreign policy and defense policy should be reconfigured, while all analysis of terrorism (e.g., the Middle East conflict) should be prohibited, since to analyze would be to justify what cannot be justified.

Or, on the contrary, we free ourselves from this dangerously simplistic position, which has perhaps reinforced security but has reinforced even more the risks we face. In this case, we reformulate a policy that (1) provides maximum security against terrorist operations, but (2) also deprives Islamic terrorists little by little of their best arguments for propaganda and recruitment (the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, the domestic situation of the Arab countries), and (3) does not make terrorism the only problem in the world.

One will not make Islamic terrorists disappear from one day to the next, but, on the other hand, they cannot overthrow the democracies or even the existing Arab regimes. In the long run, "normal" Islam will manage to absorb them, as long as Westerners do not bother it too much by their mistakes. [p. 54]

On French "Arab Policy"

To renounce French "Arab Policy" would be a useless concession to a part of the American press and the Israeli Right. This policy has sometimes deserved criticism, but it has more often been caricatured. And what should one say, then, of the Arab policy of George W. Bush or that of Likud?

. . . [French] Arab Policy has, above all, been presented by its denigrators as synonymous with indulgence toward Arab regimes that are despotic and anti-Israeli. There is nothing so terrible about that. The Arab countries are not exempted from the effort at modernization and democratization that is expected by the whole world and for which their own peoples are hoping. On the other hand, it would hardly be to our credit to demand more from an Arab country than from China or Russia. . . .

Arab policy is, of course, also the Palestinian question. At least since Mitterrand's trip to Israel in 1982, it would be totally false to say that French policy in the Middle East has been "unbalanced." It is simply the case that since Mitterrand addressed the Knesset -- or even before with Giscard -- it has not ceased to insist that the Israelis will have neither peace nor security until they have correctly resolved the Palestinian question and accepted a Palestinian state in the occupied and evacuated territories. This position did not bother a Rabin, a Shimon Peres, a Barak, the Labor Party, the peace camp in general, several important Israeli media, and numerous important personalities and even Israeli public opinion, which accepts the need for it as the polls have shown for many years now. On the other hand, this prescient and clear French position has long been an easy target for all those, in Israel and elsewhere, who refuse in principle a restitution of the territories, who refuse all negotiations and every negotiator and try to discredit all the external supports of a Palestinian state. It is also true that while the French position is correct in substance, it has too often been stated vis-à-vis Israel (among others) in a disagreeable and sermonizing manner.

One can esteem that the situation in which the Palestinian people have been placed is revolting -- it is -- and, moreover, absurd in light of Western, European, and Israeli security interests. . . . But this does not justify reducing all our relations with Israel to disapproval. Israel is a democratic and pluralistic country. The debate there is lively. After the [French] government of 2001-2002 was unjustly accused of showing indifference to the anti-Semitic acts that were committed in some banlieues, the Franco-Israel exchanges that have occurred since 2003 -- between French and Israeli "civil societies" -- have been a good thing. . . .

Hubert Védrine's full report on globalization and French foreign policy is available on the Web site of the French Presidency here and as a pdf file here . The above extracts have been selected and translated by John Rosenthal.

Photo: Hubert Védrine (Frédéric de la Mure, French foreign ministry)