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Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2011-09-22

Soon after President Barack Obama ruled out a “shortcut” to a Palestinian state Wednesday, his French counterpart took to the stage to make a proposal: non-member statehood. Widely expected not to take flight, is the stunt driven by ulterior motives?

After witnessing US President Barack Obama’s carefully worded ‘No’ to immediate Palestinian statehood on Wednesday, the UN General Assembly was treated to a very different performance by his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Let us cease our endless debates on the parameters,” Sarkozy told the assembly in New York. “Let us begin negotiations, and adopt a precise timetable. Must we exclude an intermediate stage?”

Having briskly dismissed Obama’s painstaking justification for a US veto, Sarkozy proceeded to put forward his own proposal: Palestine as a non-member state, with access to international bodies like the World Health Organisation.

Warning of a cycle of violence if the Palestinians remained stateless, the French president said his proposal – which would not require the full support of the UN Security Council – would mean “emerging from a state of immobility that favours only the extremists”.

But as some analysts have suggested, the proposal also appears to favour Sarkozy's own interests.

Champion of the Arab world

While falling far short of endorsing a Palestinian bid for full membership of the UN, Sarkozy appeared to comfort the notion that whatever hopes the Palestinians had of securing some degree of support among Western powers rested with France.

A week earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood amid masses of jubilant anti-Gaddafi supporters in Libya, beaming at “Merci Sarkozy [Thank you Sarkozy]” banners and gleefully obliging to endless handshake requests.

Sarkozy’s peak in popularity in the Arab world has led some to question his incentives in the Middle East. “Nicolas Sarkozy may be influenced, it seems, by his aspiration to continue to play the role of a liberator of oppressed nations,” Haaretz columnist Adam Primor wrote Tuesday.

According to Eric Pape, a Paris-based American journalist specialised in French foreign policy, France’s ubiquitous president is keen to sustain his enhanced visibility on the international stage. Sarkozy’s aim, Pape says, “is not to fully shape history, but to have a hand in it – and make sure the whole world is watching him as he does it, of course.”

Domestic brownie points

As France’s 2012 presidential election draws closer, Sarkozy will be keen to ensure that French voters are watching too.

“Showing his voters that he is able to influence the course of international diplomacy is very important to Sarkozy,” says Christian Makarian, managing editor of political weekly L’Express.

With some 82 per cent of the French in support of a Palestinian state and 69 per cent behind France voting in favour of the Palestinian initiative at the UN, supporting the Palestinian cause this week was a rare opportunity for Sarkozy to attract voters from across the political sphere.

According to Makarian, the French president’s Palestine plan was also a way to appease the large Muslim community in France ahead of the presidential election in 2012. “There are perhaps 10 times more Muslims than Jews in France,” he says. “On top of that, most French voters support a Palestinian state, whether they lean towards the right or the left.”

The same could not be said for his US counterpart. “Obama’s in a situation where, for internal political reasons, he’s doing what he has to,” says Pape. “Sarkozy on the other hand has more freedom on this front – France is unified behind him.”


Date created : 2011-09-22


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