By Ulf Gartzke
In the nightmare scenarios for American and French conservatives, France and the United States could both have female, left-of-center presidents in power by January 2009. Ulf Gartzke discusses the impact of Franco-American relations on domestic electoral politics.
BOTH FRANCE AND the United States will hold presidential elections in the next 24 months: France in April-May 2007 and the United States in November 2008. Earlier this month, the members of France’s Socialist party overwhelmingly voted to nominate the telegenic female MP Ségolène Royal as their candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. While the 53-year-old wife of Socialist party leader François Hollande is considered by many to have great style, political and otherwise, she proved to be short on substance during the Socialist primary campaign. Nevertheless, with over 60 percent of the vote she soundly defeated former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius as well as former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
In the 2007 presidential contest, Royal will now most likely face off against conservative interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has successfully portrayed himself as tough on crime. Much of the conservative UMP party has already rallied around its chairman, “Sarko,” who just this morning announced the official launch of his 2007 presidential campaign. The UMP party is expected to formally nominate the ambitious 51-year-old as its presidential candidate next January. Meanwhile, the two men holding France’s top jobs–incumbent 74-year-old President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin–are keeping their options open and neither has ruled out a possible run at the Palais de l’Elysée in 2007. Both men, however, are viewed by many as old-guard politicians who form part of the sleazy “système Chirac”.
Sarkozy, in contrast, is seen as a reformer who wants to modernize France’s costly welfare state, simplify the tax code, and abolish the 35-hour work week in an effort to make the country embrace “la mondialisation”. However, Sarko’s victory against Socialist candidate Royal is far from certain. Therefore, in the respective nightmare scenarios for American and French conservatives, France and the United States would both have female, left-of-center presidents in power by January 2009. Whether such an outcome would lead to better Franco-American relations is perhaps a subject worthy of a book in itself. It seems clear, though, that the Bush administration would like to leave office under very different political circumstances.
Hence, if the Bush administration prefers a Sarkozy presidency to a Royal presidency, it would be well advised to continue to build better bilateral relations and to painstakingly avoid saying or doing things that could fan anti-American sentiments before the upcoming French presidential elections. In this context, it was an encouraging sign that the U.S. House of Representatives recently decided to change the name of “freedom fries” back to “french fries” on its cafeteria menus. Back in March 2003, in the midst of rising transatlantic tensions over the Iraq war, the anti-French culinary rebuke was hailed by Congressional leaders as “a small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.”
In the meantime, Franco-American relations have already improved quietly, but significantly, and the strong-anti French sentiment that was pervasive in many parts of the United States three years ago has largely dissipated. In terms of foreign policy, Washington and Paris seem to have found common ground on a range of issues, including Iran, North Korea, and Lebanon, thus allowing for the passage of important Security Council resolutions. Perhaps to the disappointment of some media outlets, the selection of the next secretary-general of the U.N. was also carried out without transatlantic mudslinging of any kind.
Transatlantic relations are not irrelevant to electoral politics, at least not in France, where Sarkozy could well be described as the most pro-American politician of his generation (admittedly, the competition for this accolade is not that stiff). Following Sarkozy’s pro-American rhetoric during a recent visit to the United States–symbolically timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks–he was quickly lambasted by a leading Socialist politician who portrayed him as George Bush’s poodle and someone who could not be trusted to defend his country’s interests. For a French politician, few accusations could be more serious, even in times of warming transatlantic relations.
As became evident in Germany in 2002–when Chancellor Schroeder’s narrowly won re-election largely due to his outspoken opposition to President Bush and the Iraq war–anti-Americanism can play an important role in European elections, and can even tip the balance in one direction or another. So far, however, anti-Americanism–unlike anti-French sentiment–has yet to prompt the renaming of culinary dishes. Hence, if the day comes when the French feel compelled to make up their own name for “hot dog,” we will know that the transatlantic relationship has tumbled to a new low.
Ulf Gartzke is a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies in Washington, DC.
A slightly modified version of this op-ed was published on the Weekly Standard website www.weeklystandard.com on November 30, 2006.