On the eve of a visit to Russia, the repentant socialist French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, delivered a fiery statement warning Iran that war was at its doorstep.
An Iranian nuclear weapon, he declared, would pose “a real danger for the whole world … We need to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war.”
Faced with angry protests in Tehran and other world capitals, Kouchner – who was in favour of war on Iraq in 2003 – was later forced to downplay his words. “I do not want it to be said that I’m a warmonger,” he objected.
The truth is that Kouchner’s message was not directed at Tehran so much as it was aimed at Washington, at Bush rather than at Ahmadinejad. The message is clear: Sarkozy’s France belongs with the “new Europe”, as a strong ally on whose support the US can count should it opt for war on Iran.
Sarkozy was not Chirac, he implied: he would not repeat his predecessor’s mistakes, and would not defy Washington’s will.
Sarkozy has his eye on Blair’s old role. He is keen to fill the position Blair’s departure from 10 Downing Street has left vacant. With Brown’s decision to withdraw British troops from Basra and other southern Iraqi cities, and the new margin of differences between Britain and the US, Sarkozy is moving to take on the part of America’s “close ally” and “reliable partner”.
But change has not been confined to Paris. The impact the Iraq disaster and escalating conflict in Afghanistan have had on Washington cannot be overestimated. Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogant tone and cowboy-style vocabulary have made way for Condoleezza Rice’s more measured words and manufactured smiles. Bush is in dire need of “partners”, and Sarkozy is more than happy to oblige.
The new French president is actively working to transform the de Gaullian bases of French foreign and defence policy, which have been in place since the end of the second world war. According to these, French national interests were to be pursued independently of the US and its Nato umbrella, while the EU was to be strengthened through the French/German partnership.
But these are no longer the principles guiding the Elysée. It is progressively abandoning its position of autonomy and binding itself ever closer to the US.
France has not only shaken off its traditional reservations towards Nato: there is talk of negotiations between Nato and France for the latter to reverse the 1966 decision by de Gaulle to pull out of the organisation’s integrated military command and to get back fully into the fold.
The truth is, this is as absurd a policy turn as can be. And its timing could not be more wrong.
Sarkozy is courting Washington’s favour at a time when even its traditional allies are turning away from it, keen to be seen to keep their distance, weary of being associated with its president in the eyes of increasingly hostile international public opinion.
What does France stand to gain from this exchange? The answer is, nothing. Drowning in crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, deeply loathed around the world and isolated at home, Bush has nothing to offer France, or any one else. He is now a heavy burden shunned by almost everyone, a sinking ship no one wants to board or cling on to.
France has greatly benefited from its opposition to America’s war on Iraq. It was able to increase its international standing and strengthen its soft power in various parts of the world where it had been retreating.
For the first time, in Britain protesters shouted “Vive la France!” in February 2003. Even in Algeria, where more than 1 million people had given their lives for the cause of independence from French occupation, the bitter past was set aside and throngs of Algerians greeted Chirac like a hero.
A sarcastic old Arab proverb says of one who mistimes an action: “Off to pilgrimage when everyone else is back.” Sarkozy wants to be Blair when Blair’s time is long gone.
All he stands to gain is the dubious honour of being known as Bush’s new poodle, and having angry protesters against US foreign policy burn his effigy instead of Blair’s.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 28 September 2007