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As predicted, Francois Hollande, Socialist, ousted French incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy Sunday in French elections. In the larger sense, France, like the rest of Europe’s more profligate spenders (see Greece, Spain, Italy etc), does not like austerity. Traditionally, the French like le spending. And les taxes. Hollande answers the mail on both counts: He has pledged to raise taxes on top earners from 41 to 75 percent and hike the corporate tax rate up as well (not, we should add, as high as the corporate tax rate in the United States). A la fin, France’s election was about domestic policies, not foreign policy.
Nonetheless, Hollande’s defeat of Americain Sarkozy does matter when it comes to foreign policy because Sarkozy has arguably been the most alliance-friendly French leader in decades—perhaps ever. Cynics might argue that is not an especially high bar to clear to lay claim to such a title but, as in all things political, “better is always good.”
So what will President Hollande mean for foreign policy? Contrary to those who believe Sarko was the George Bush of France (“dragging” Obama into Libya, taking a hard line on Iran’s nuclear program), and have hopes that the long-time head of the French Socialist Party will take a severe turn to the left, Hollande is likely to disappoint.
First, his campaign stayed away from talking about foreign policy almost altogether. Hollande had a 60 point agenda, and only four of those points touched on foreign affairs. Hollande has said he might revisit Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin the military side of NATO, but in the end made little of that during the campaign. And he has made no noise about pulling out the UK-French defense cooperation accord that Cameron and Sarkozy signed. Nor has he tried to distance himself from his predecessor’s intervention in Libya or his relatively hawkish policies toward Syria and Iran.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that France will not drift under Hollande in a less than helpful direction. As our friend Anne-Elizabeth Moutet notes over at The Weekly Standard about one possibility:
“Because Hollande knows little of international affairs, he is likely to pick the staunchly anti-‘anglo-saxon’ Hubert Védrine, a former Mitterrand chief of staff who was an extremely capable foreign minister under Chirac and Jospin. Védrine, the son of a Mitterrand acolyte and junior Vichy official, Jean Védrine, is a clever, urbane ENA graduate with a clear vision of a foreign policy designed to reduce the West’s influence in global affairs. (He coined the word ‘hyperpower’ to refer to Washington. It was not meant as a compliment.) Védrine has done much, like his political adversary Jacques Chirac, to foster the notion of ‘multipolarity,’ in which many more international players can influence world affairs, U.N.-like.”
The one policy change Hollande is specifically committed to (and which will be most noticed by conservatives in Washington) is his pledge to withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. But, again, this is not a radical departure from Sarkozy, who had already pledged to bring those troops home in 2013, a full year ahead of the alliance’s agreement to stay until 2014. Still, the march to the exits by the large French contingent (the fourth largest in Afghanistan) can’t be counted as a net positive for either NATO or Obama’s efforts to maintain a coalition. Nor is Hollande’s brief allusion to a “return to NATO’s original mission of collective defense” (point 60) a good harbinger for NATO’s future relevance in the world’s hotspots. As for the French military capabilities, given Hollande’s desire to spend more at home but do so without upping France’s deficit, the bill payer is likely to be the country’s already shrinking military. Soon, perhaps by next year, France might no longer be able to say that it is one of the less than a handful of allies that spends more than the 2% floor that NATO members “pledged” to try and meet back in 2002.
If Hollande causes any immediate fuss it will be in an effort to rejigger the Sarkozy-Merkel negotiated pact to save the euro. Hollande has argued that the plan puts too much on austerity measures and provides too few policies designed to generate economic growth. Always wary of anything that might smack of inflationary policies, Berlin is certain to push back. Should Hollande push too hard on this front, markets in Europe and elsewhere will tank, and hopes for saving the euro will likely be dashed. Given that outcome, it’s doubtful that Hollande, good Europeanist that he is, will want to be blamed for such an outcome. He has said Berlin-Paris friendship is “indispensable for Europe”, and that friendship will not survive dumping the Sarko-Merkel compact. In the end, he might well extract some concessions from Berlin as Rome and Madrid weigh in on Paris’ side, but it will be small edits not wholesale redrafts to the agreement.
Add it all together, and the dry and cautious Hollande appears almost certain to pursue a dry and cautious presidency. Not too much Socialism, not too much unilateralism, not too much leadership … Just a return to the slow and steady decline candidate Sarkozy in 2007 seemed determined to reverse but, as president, barely slowed. ZZZZ.
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