Sarkozy’s Cabinet Reshuffle and French Exceptionalism

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reshuffled his cabinet over the weekend, and in line with recent precedent under the Fifth Republic, the new government marks a shift back to Sarkozy’s political base in anticipation of the upcoming presidential election in 2012. So centrist Defense Minister Hervé Morin and Socialist Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner are out, replaced by UMP heavyweights Alain Juppé and Michèle Alliot-Marie, respectively. The fact that Juppé and Alliot-Marie are both dyed-in-the-wool Chirac loyalists also serves to heighten Dominique de Villepin’s isolation from the Sarkozy court, and could be an indicator of where on the right Sarkozy feels the real threat lies for 2012.

But if the appointment of Juppé and Alliot-Marie makes sense from the standpoint of presidential politics, it’s hard to see their pronounced Gaullism fitting smoothly into the French national security and foreign policy posture that has emerged under Sarkozy’s presidency.

As Villepin noted in a televised debate that followed Sarkozy’s news conference last night, Sarkozy has guided France into a series of alignments: with NATO — meaning the U.S. — and more recently with Great Britain. And as Marine Le Pen pointed out on the same program, to defend his various reforms during his press conference, Sarkozy used as his model not France, but Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The underlying logic making those reforms necessary is the logic of globalization and the economic competition it creates.

Both observations are valid, and get to something that I flagged early on in Sarkozy’s presidency: Understood globally, his reforms, both domestic and in foreign policy, represent a renunciation of l’exception française, or France’s version of national exceptionalism. It amounts to an effort to convince the French people that, despite the self-satisfaction that comes of standing astride history yelling, “Stop!”, it is a losing effort.

If Sarkozy can be credited with one strategic accomplishment during his presidency, it’s the recognition that France’s independent policy line — independent, that is, of both political alignments and history — might make for rousing speeches, but it leaves the country at a decided disadvantage in the increasingly multipolar world that Paris long sought.

That obviously comes as anathema to someone like Marine Le Pen. But it’s not easy on Gaullist ears either, even if they have a more highly developed sense of how French autonomy can be integrated into Europe and a global economy. Villepin defended France’s tradition of independence, understandable for someone who likely believes that March 2003 was a demonstration of French influence in the global arena, when it was in fact the exact opposite. But it’s a sentiment that Juppé and Alliot-Marie probably share, even if Juppé is a self-professed Europhile. That could lead to some interesting developments, both in the run-up to 2012 and beyond.

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