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Sarkozy's Human Rights Pirhouette

Friday, Nov. 5, 2010

It's pretty rare that a politician does an about-face as flagrant and publicly documented as French President Nicolas Sarkozy's stance on human rights in the conduct of foreign policy. Here he is back in the summer of 2007, just before his first meeting with Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin:

Mr. Sarkozy has promised to confront Mr. Putin about human rights violations in Chechnya and about the slaying last October of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote scathingly of the Russian president.

Here he is yesterday before his meeting in Paris with Chinese President Hu Jintao:

"China should not be seen as a risk but an opportunity," Mr. Sarkozy said before Mr. Hu landed in France. "It's not by reproaching people for things that you make progress."

Now, it so happens that I tend to agree with Sarkozy 2.0, especially if you define progress in terms of bilateral trade deals signed and nuclear reactors sold. That's meant only half-jokingly, because trade and strategic industries are a major indicator of a nation's power, and their promotion is a compelling concern of any head of state.

I also tend to believe that Sarkozy has done a good job in foreign policy, judging by France's standing and global influence when he took office compared to today. Certainly he himself, meaning his persona and his opportunism, has undermined his own credibility as well as France's image. But that image was a bit dusty and dated. As for human rights, I'm no longer convinced that states should be judged by the same standards as individuals or even communities. At the very least, defending human rights in a world full of necessary compromises is not as easy as single-issue advocates make it seem.

Having said that, however, it's still remarkable the degree to which Sarkozy's conduct of foreign policy stands in direct contrast to his campaign pledges. To the extent that a discussion of foreign policy even entered into the 2007 election campaign, it revolved around reaffirming France's commitment to human rights as a core tenet of its foreign policy. With regard to security issues, Sarkozy promised to mend relations with the U.S., while maintaining an emphasis on French autonomy in the framework of EU defense. In other words, he promised an embrace of Western values and a pragmatic security posture.

Instead we've seen the exact opposite. By reintegrating NATO and prioritizing a French-British defense pact outside the context of EU defense, Sarkozy has implicitly -- and at times explicitly -- embraced a Western security posture. Meanwhile, his emphasis on commerce and realpolitik over human rights concerns -- in Libya, Russia, China, and the broader Middle East -- represents an embrace of pragmatism.

Even more striking is the fact that all of this has taken place without the slightest debate, and over the objections of his nominally Socialist foreign minister. This reflects the way in which Sarkozy has concentrated decision-making within the presidency, as opposed to within the government ministries, as was previously the case in France. For now he's gotten away with it. But it's interesting to consider how such a presidential system would work under cohabitation, with an opposition prime minister and a foreign minister truly in the opposition.