For Americans, picking favorites in French elections is a difficult task. The political combat between the inheritors of Charles De Gaulle’s centrist faction, the socialists and their more marginal foes on both the right and the left generally leaves Americans cold in a way that the equally remote battles of Conservatives and Laborites in Britain does not. Though Americans may have viewed Nicolas Sarkozy with more affection than his predecessor Jacques Chirac — whose opposition to American foreign policy inspired intense hostility on these shores — it isn’t likely that his departure from the Elysee Palace would generate much grief here. But the French election will have a not insignificant influence on a number of issues that are important to Americans. As Seth noted, Sarkozy’s defeat would be a blow to the joint effort he undertook with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to promote an austerity-first fiscal approach that would save the Eurozone. But the triumph of Francois Hollande and the Socialists might have an even bigger impact on the ability of the West to present a united front to Iran.
Sarkozy may share President Obama’s antipathy for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is also true that France’s stance on Middle East peace under his administration has been no more helpful than it might be under the Socialists. However, Sarkozy has been a stalwart opponent of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, often getting far ahead of the United States on the issue and helping to buttress the shaky determination of the European Union to take a firm stand. As Tony Karon points out in Time Magazine, it is almost a certainty that Hollande would not be interested in staking out such a tough position or using his influence to keep the EU in line on the matter.
Though the EU push for negotiations with Iran may be a doubtful strategy, it must be conceded that, although Tehran may intend to use the P5+1 talks to run out the clock, Sarkozy’s approach to the issue has been largely exemplary in his devotion to ensuring the nuclear threat is ended by any agreement. As Karon points out, without Sarkozy, the dynamic within the EU will change for the worse:
Sarkozy has been the leading voice of skepticism over negotiations among Western leaders, and he has taken the lead in pressing both the Obama administration and European governments to adopt the sanctions targeting Iran’s energy exports and banking sector that have had a painful impact on the Iranian economy. Britain supports France’s zero-enrichment demand, but hasn’t been quite as activist in promoting it. London is also more likely, analysts say, to go along with the consensus if Western powers can fashion an interim deal that offers concrete progress in reinforcing barriers to Iran using its nuclear program to create weapons, even if that leaves the issue of Iran’s ongoing enrichment to 3.5 percent unresolved for now. A nuclear compromise involving steps to diminish the danger of weaponization in the near term, but which leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium and at the same time eases international pressure on Tehran, is precisely what the Israelis fear right now. And Sarkozy, while rejecting Israel’s threat to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could be more willing to push back against a compromise on the enrichment issue than Hollande would be.
Sarkozy’s departure would come at a crucial time in the talks. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s obvious interest in making the dispute disappear without an Iranian surrender needs to be balanced by strong opposition from France.
All this means the May 6 French runoff may be just as important for Israel, the United States and Iran as it is for France.