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France, Turkey and Sarkozy's Strategic Vision

Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009

Yesterday, I half-jokingly noted the long trail of mediations necessary to get the Israeli-Syrian peace track back in gear. What I forgot to mention regarding a French role in that process is that before France can mediate between Israel and Turkey, someone's got to mediate between France and Turkey. That's because of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's vocal opposition to Turkey's EU accession.

There's been some recent chatter that France and Turkey have arrived at a modus vivendi on that issue. But I would be very surprised if Sarkozy doesn't reverse positions on Turkey completely should he win a second term in 2012 -- and perhaps even before then. Refusing Turkey's European claims made for good domestic electoral politics back in 2007, given Sarkozy's efforts to pick off far-right Front National voters, as well as French voters' general hostility to the EU. But it makes for a very counterproductive stance in light of Sarkozy ambitions for France's role in the Middle East.

Sarkozy's foreign policy has often been criticized as incoherent, which I think reflects the many ways in which the man has been confused with the program. As an illustration, today, Sarkozy is in Saudi Arabia, trying to advance French nuclear giant Areva's chances for developing the kingdom's future civil nuclear energy program. And this passage from the article, in particular, sums up what I think has been Sarkozy's great strength as a strategic planner:


Britain, once the colonial power in the region, still outweighsFrance at most levels. A former French envoy said: ''You turn up atmeetings with British and Arabs and you immediately feel left behind bythe strength of personal connections.''

But shiftsin influence come slowly and Mr Sarkozy has cleverly positioned himselfboth as a hardliner on Iran and as an interlocutor in the Middle Eastpeace talks, offering to host a summit.

That islikely to win him favour with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who is inany case looking to move away from reliance on America.

I think Sarkozy, or more likely his national security team of Claude Guéant and Jean-David Levitte, took a very subtle reading of the state of play in the Middle East at the end of the Bush administration, and positioned France very well -- both with the Bush adminsitration and in the region -- to take advantage of it. That strategy has gotten a bit trickier given the Obama administration's desire to engage Syria and find a long-term accomodation with Iran, leaving less empty space for France to leverage. And as the above passage makes clear, these are relationships that take time to develop.

But none of this would have been possible without the major shifts in French posture that Sarkozy adopted. The last missing piece is Turkey, and perhaps a more flexible approach to Iran. As always with Sarkozy, pragamatism comes before ideology. To be continued . . .