Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.
While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.
The assumption up until now is that President Obama was going to spend the next six months hiding behind the ongoing negotiations with Iran and allow the EU to take the lead as it has throughout this process. To the surprise of many, the Europeans have been consistently ahead of Washington when it came to doing more than talking about stopping Iran. For this, Sarkozy deserved much of the credit. But his exit will create a void on the issue that Hollande is not likely to fill even if, at least on the surface, his position is not much different from that of his predecessor.
That will leave EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is already in charge of the P5+1 talks, with a much freer hand to craft a deal that will please the ayatollahs more than President Obama. Though few believe the Iranians would actually make good on any promises made in the talks, there is a strong possibility they would be willing to agree, at least in principle, to an accord that would satisfy Europeans who are eager to back down from their threat of an oil embargo later this year. No other European leader, including a beleaguered British Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to fill Sarkozy’s shoes on this point and stop Ashton from playing the Iranians’ game.
A deal with Iran that leaves their nuclear program intact with only promises about the export of refined uranium might be something a re-elected Obama would approve but not while he is fighting for re-election. The president has been defending the “window of diplomacy” that he thinks has opened up with Iran, but it is doubtful he would want to defend a flawed or weak deal with Tehran on the campaign trail. It would serve his purposes far better for Ashton to keep talking than to be faced with her acceptance of something that he would be hard pressed to justify to the American public. If that happens, it will be Obama who is left holding the bag on a diplomatic disaster and ruing the day the French electorate sent Sarkozy packing.