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France

New French foreign minister faces baptism of fire

Text by Ben MCPARTLAND

Latest update : 2012-05-18

Almost three decades after becoming France’s youngest-ever prime minister, Laurent Fabius (left) returned to government this week as the new French foreign minister. With Syria, Iran and Afghanistan high on the agenda, Fabius faces a baptism of fire.

In February, with his presidential campaign in full swing, François Hollande dispatched Laurent Fabius to Beijing to build contacts with the Chinese regime on his behalf.

Fabius left the Chinese capital after just 24 hours with his tail between his legs after failing to persuade any senior officials to meet him.

But after Hollande appointed him as the new French Foreign Minister on Wednesday 65-year-old Fabius, who is the oldest member of the new government, will now carry more weight when he tries to do the president’s bidding abroad.

Much has been made of the French President’s choice of Fabius to lead the Foreign Ministry at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris.

Fabius is a former rival of Hollande who once nicknamed the president ‘wild strawberry’, referring to his tendency to hide in the undergrowth of the Socialist Party and avoid the real world of politics.

Hollande’s new cabinet

Secretary general:

   Pierre-René Lemas

Chief of staff:

   General Benoît Puga

Cabinet director:

   Sylvie Hubac

Political adviser:

   Aquilino Morelle
 

But by choosing Fabius, who under François Mitterrand in 1984 became the youngest ever Prime Minister at 37, Hollande has handed one of the most powerful jobs in his new government to a man with undisputed gravitas.

Described in France as a real ‘elephant’ of the Socialist Party Fabius, who has already served in three government ministries, will need to draw on all of his experience as he takes over from his predecessor Alain Juppé at a time when France faces several pressing issues abroad.

Getting to grips with Assad

In a recent interview with FRANCE 24, before Hollande’s victory in the presidential runoff, Fabius said he wanted to end the ‘incoherence’ of Juppé’s foreign policy.
But some analysts believe a new foreign minister will not necessarily mean a new foreign policy.

“It’s not going to change much. Dominique Moisi, a founder of the IFRI foreign relations Paris-based think-tank told Reuters news agency. “He resembles Juppé in stature and looks. He has served the state, has dignity and calmness. He is a left-wing Juppé.”

One of the more urgent issues on the Foreign Ministry’s agenda is the ongoing crisis in Syria.

If Fabius’ previous statements regarding the ongoing violence in Syria are anything to go by, then he could be prepared to toughen France’s stance towards the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In April 2011 in an interview with Europe1 radio station Fabius stated that the United Nations should intervene in Syria, before accepting the situation in the war-torn country was ‘unique’. He called on Sarkozy to ‘harden the tone’ towards Assad, describing the regime’s persecution of his own people as ‘abominable’.

But Charles Grant, director of the London-based think-tank the Centre for European Reform told FRANCE 24 that such is Assad’s defiance of international pressure that “no matter what France says towards Syria it will not make any difference”.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan

One of François Hollande’s key election pledges was a promise to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years ahead of the planned NATO pullout.

The decision is not expected to go down well with France’s western allies Britain and the United States at next week’s NATO summit in Chicago which will provide Fabius with his first major test less than a week into the job.

Despite the expected antagonism from France’s NATO allies Fabius has already made his position clear on Afghanistan.

“There is no chance of a military solution in Afghanistan. We have to work towards a political solution,” he told FRANCE 24 in April.

With France not towing the coalition line on Afghanistan, the country’s recently rejuvenated relationship with NATO will come under the spotlight.

In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy returned France to being a fully-fledged member of NATO, 43 years after his predecessor Charles de Gaulle withdrew from the alliance’s integrated command.

Despite the predicted friction over Afghanistan, analysts do not foresee Hollande and Fabius engineering a return to old ways and withdrawing France from its NATO commitments.

“France’s position in NATO could possibly be a bone of contention for the new government” Professor Philippe Marlière from University College London told France 24. "Francois Hollande has not said he wished to leave NATO so I expect a continuation of that role.”

Dealing with a nuclear Iran

One of the files lying on Fabius’ desk which may suddenly be pushed to the top of the pile during his term in office is Iran and its controversial nuclear program.

Fabius has said he is “absolutely hostile” to the prospect of Iran having the capability to launch a nuclear weapon as it would be “extremely dangerous for the region”.

But he has also gone on the record saying that a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would carry “enormous risks”.

For the time being, Fabius looks set to continue the foreign policy towards Iran laid down by his predecessor, telling FRANCE 24 he favored a two-pronged approach of combining strong sanctions with efforts to negotiate with the regime.

An equal footing with Africa

One area of foreign policy Fabius has vowed to break with is that of France’s often murky relationship with French-speaking African countries.

The French have long been accused of dealing with their former colonies as though they were still ruling them but Fabius vowed that future relations would be on a basis of “equals”.

“We are going to deal with our African friends in a transparent fashion with a desire for partnership in development,” Fabius told journalists on Thursday.

Another important file Juppé has handed over to Fabius is on the worsening crisis in Mali where concerns are growing that al Qaeda are setting up bases in the rebel-held north of the country.

With the Middle East, Afghanistan and parts of Africa as unstable as ever, Fabius will no doubt have a busy time ahead on his return to frontline government.

But like many of his colleagues in Hollande’s new government his new job looks set to be dominated by an all-too-familiar crisis closer to home.

“The priority is to disentangle the crisis in Europe, while at the same time making progress on the most urgent issues,” he told BFMTV on Thursday.

Date created : 2012-05-17

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