When she was first named foreign minister last November, I, like most observers, noted Michèle Alliot-Marie’s reputation as a professional, the kind of minister who could be counted on to take care of business and not make headlines. She arguably delivered on the first count, but was done in by her abject failure to deliver on the second, with the never-ending revelations from her ill-fated Christmas holiday in Tunisia fatally undermining her legitimacy as the face of France’s foreign policy.
Nevertheless, it’s worth repeating that Alliot-Marie’s failings were a function of her professionalism — that is, they reflect the standard operating procedure of French government ministers from both the left and the right, who, like their Western counterparts, have entertained cozy relations with regional dictators for decades. Her real crime was in failing to anticipate the sea change underway in Northern Africa and, by consequence, the radically altered optics of business as usual. As a result, her buffoonish predecessor, Bernard Kouchner, lasted three years at Quai d’Orsay, while Alliot-Marie is out after just three months.
Adding yet another layer of irony, Alliot-Marie has been shown the door for what as yet is nothing more than the appearance of impropriety. By contrast, the improprieties of the man who succeeds her, Alain Juppé, are a matter of court record, recalling Billy Martin’s famous comparison of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner, which resulted in his first firing from the N.Y. Yankees in 1978.
Be that as it may, Juppé is by far the best and brightest of the right, the kind of eminence grise who by all rights should be safely ensconced above the fray of politics. (The fact that he isn’t suggests that he harbors as yet unfulfilled political ambitions, with the only government position lacking on his CV being that of his boss — that is, the presidency.) His keen intelligence and intuitive grasp of the need to leverage national sovereignty with European scale will be missed at the Defense Ministry, where during his short tenure he championed European defense and a common European defense industry. That reflected a much-needed rebalancing of Sarkozy’s shift toward a closer alignment with the U.S., a shift that has been viewed with unease by large segments of both the French military and foreign policy community. He is succeeded by Gérard Longuet, a senator and UMP functionary with little claim to expertise in matters of defense.
Juppé’s challenge at Quai d’Orsay will be to craft a similarly balanced approach to France’s foreign policy, where the incoherences of Sarkozy’s pragmatic opportunism are more pronounced and the complementary fit with Europe’s common policy less obvious. The fact that Sarkozy’s chief of staff and senior adviser Claude Guéant is leaving Elysée Palace to head the Interior Ministry will in all likelihood offer Juppé a bit more independence than either Kouchner or Alliot-Marie enjoyed, although Jean-David Levitte continues to exercise enormous influence over the formulation of French foreign policy as Sarkozy’s national security adviser.
It is not surprising that, with her bulldozer-like bureaucratic efficiency, Alliot-Marie was overtaken by events in Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is also fortuitous for France, as Juppé’s dexterity and intellect make him a better candidate to navigate the new regional realities on the ground.