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French diplomacy's ghastly new year

France has long prided itself in mastering the art of diplomacy better than anyone else. But that assumption has been rattled by a series of blunders on the international stage.


Ever since former President Charles de Gaulle famously said non to NATO, French presidents’ exclusive control over foreign policy has worked wonders for their popularity back home. Never was this more the case than with Jacques Chirac, whose highly popular opposition to the Iraq War compensated for many a failing on the domestic front.

For a time it looked like the same would apply to the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Soon after beginning his term, the French head of state won plaudits at home for his role in securing the release of Bulgarian nurses held in Libya in 2007, and for his hands-on approach the next year during the Russo-Georgian conflict and the French presidency of the EU.

Yet while Sarkozy was hoping France’s presidencies of the G8 and the G20 this year would help lift his now-sagging popularity rate, a series of mishaps on the foreign policy front have done the exact opposite.

Air Dictator

Sarkozy’s best-laid plans unravelled when it emerged in January that his prime minister, François Fillon, and his foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie (pictured above), two veteran politicians with a reputation for circumspection and integrity, had both been treated to holidays by north African regimes grappling with nascent uprisings – an affair the French press dubbed the "Air Dictator" scandal.

While Fillon soon came out clean, Alliot-Marie was repeatedly forced to amend her account of events even as details emerged of her flights on board a private jet owned by a Tunisian businessman linked to the country’s ousted president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Matters got worse for Alliot-Marie – known in France as MAM – when the French press revealed that her parents had concluded a property deal with the same businessman during the trip.

Left-wing opponents clamoured for her resignation, saying the conflict of interest made her unfit for her post, while the French daily Le Monde asked in a scathing editorial: “How far can one go in triviality and indignity before the French foreign minister understands that she is undermining the authority of her position?”

Trouble in France's backyard

The scandal cast unwanted attention on France’s close links with regimes across the Mediterranean at a time when governments around the world were struggling to come to terms with rapidly unfolding events in the Arab world. As the former colonial power and Tunisia’s closest ally for over two decades, France might have been expected to understand the events that led to Ben Ali’s abrupt departure. But even ahead of those revelations, France’s top diplomat had committed a major misstep. Just days before the long-time ruler was deposed, as Sarkozy kept unusually quiet, the best MAM could manage was to offer the savoir faire of French security forces to the authorities in Tunis.

“It was a most unfortunate comment,” said Maurice Vaïsse, a historian specialising in French foreign policy and author of La puissance ou l’influence: la France dans le monde (Power or influence: France in the world), “but it is unfair to blame France for failing to predict an event that caught everyone off guard”. According to Vaïsse, the warm ties established with the Ben Ali regime over the past 20 years had left France in an uncomfortable position. “It was an extremely delicate situation for France, as was the Egyptian crisis for the US,” he told FRANCE 24.

But while Washington eventually managed to position itself on the “right side” of events in Egypt, France’s image in Tunisia has been severely damaged. Indeed, when the first French ministerial delegation since the ouster of Ben Ali arrived in Tunis on Tuesday, the foreign minister was conspicuously absent. Such is Tunisian resentment of MAM that when the country’s newly appointed foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaies, declared Alliot-Marie to be “above all a friend of Tunisia”, he was promptly forced to resign. Did Alliot-Marie resign after her Tunisian gaffes? Non.

Discontent at the Quai d’Orsay

The Tunisian debacle has revived claims that the Sarkozy administration, including Alliot-Marie, is failing to heed the advice of those working for the Quai d’Orsay, as the French foreign ministry is commonly known. With its 160 embassies and 96 consulates, France still boasts a vast diplomatic network, second only to the US. But staff numbers have steadily declined over the past two decades, and those left are feeling increasingly ostracized. In an op-ed published in the left-leaning daily Libération, Yves Aubin de la Messuzière, a former ambassador to Tunisia, wrote that “the expertise of the Quai d’Orsay, marginalised since 2007 [the year Sarkozy came to power], had been neglected”. Vaïsse agreed that French diplomats are seldom sought out, “particularly when it comes to countries with whom France enjoys extremely close, and therefore complex, ties”.

The simmering discontent at the Quai d’Orsay underscores a growing feeling among diplomats that France’s foreign policy is being shaped elsewhere, namely at the Elysée Palace. Throughout the Fifth Republic, French presidents have indeed regarded foreign policy as their exclusive prerogative, and Sarkozy – the so-called “hyper-president” – is no exception. According to Vaïsse, "there is no doubt the Elysée Palace weighs too heavily on French foreign policy.”


The French president has brought his own brand of politics – a mix of hyperactivity, bold announcements and extensive exposure to the media – onto the international stage, blowing away the caution traditionally associated with diplomacy. A recent row with Mexico, centred on a Frenchwoman jailed in Mexico for her role in a kidnapping case, made for a textbook case of the Sarkozy approach to international affairs – and yet another questionable foreign policy manoeuvre. French officials had already angered Mexico by describing the case as a “denial of justice”, claiming Mexican authorities flouted international agreements by refusing to extradite 36-year-old Florence Cassez. But when Sarkozy proceeded to dedicate a year-long French festival celebrating Mexican culture to Cassez, the standoff escalated into a full-blown diplomatic dispute, prompting the celebrated writer and former Mexican ambassador to Paris Carlos Fuentes to say the French president had behaved like "the dictator of a banana republic."

Fuentes suggested Sarkozy’s words had been dictated by “electoral considerations”, echoing a frequent charge that French presidents’ personal interests weigh too heavily on France’s foreign policy. But if that was the case, the move hardly seems to be paying off, with recent polls suggesting France’s diplomatic blunders are affecting Sarkozy’s already abysmal popularity rate, which is hovering around 30 %.


Other foreign policy initiatives of Sarkozy’s have yielded equally unfortunate results, sometimes because of circumstances beyond the French president’s control. His pet project, the Mediterranean Union, has been all but wrecked by the unrest sweeping the Arab world. With the two cornerstones of the union, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, both gone, reviving the project could well prove a forlorn task. Meanwhile Sarkozy’s first move in the region since the recent events, the appointment of his protégé Boris Boillon as France’s new ambassador in Tunis, proved problematic. Far from helping mend ties with Tunisians, the 39-year-old French envoy – who once admitted to being called "my son" by Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi – drew hundreds of angry protesters outside the French embassy in Tunis after he slammed Tunisian journalists’ “daft questions” at his very first press conference.

Ironically, the crowd standing outside the embassy held signs reading “Casse toi, pauv’ Boillon” (“Get lost, poor Boillon”), a reference to an infamous slur Sarkozy uttered in 2008 on the altogether different stage of the Paris farm show. For the French president, it seems, domestic and foreign policies are indeed intertwined – but not quite the way he might have hoped.

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