Sarkozy's reshuffle aims for damage control in the Arab world
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President Nicolas Sarkozy’s latest cabinet reshuffle, notably the appointment of Alain Juppé (photo), is meant to remedy a clumsy response to uprisings in the Arab world. France24.com takes a closer look at this crucial shift in French diplomacy.
His approval ratings are low and his name has lately been splashed across the front pages of national newspapers in a manner that is less than flattering, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not giving up without a fight.
In his latest plan of attack, Sarkozy has recast French foreign policy with a shake-up of foreign, defence and interior ministers intended to correct a diplomatic course that has been strewn with errors, notably France’s reaction to the anti-government movements currently sweeping the Arab world.
The reshuffle is part of a high stakes political game for Sarkozy, who is trying to boost his chances of re-election next year. Historically, France has had a fraught relationship with many countries in the region (some of them former colonies), and the administration was left embarrassed not just by the toppling of allies like Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but also by a series of faux pas by outgoing Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie.
France ‘must not be afraid’
Sarkozy's televised statement Sunday evening was expected to explain the motivations behind the reshuffle, but interestingly the president did not once mention Alliot-Marie, or the reasons for her resignation.
The announcement came in the wake of Alliot-Marie’s clumsy and much publicised pledges of French support for Tunisian riot police, as well as revelations that she had spent her holiday in Tunisia during the protests and had borrowed a private jet from a Ben Ali confidante.
Instead of rebuking her, the French president painted the new appointment as France taking necessary steps to prepare for emerging Arab democracies.
“These Arab revolutions open a new era in our relations with these countries, with whom we are so close in history and geography”, Sarkozy said at the press conference. “This change is historic. We must not be afraid.''
Heading-up French foreign policy in place of Alliot-Marie, Sarkozy has picked Alain Juppé, who had been acting as defence minister in the current administration and was prime minister under former President Jacques Chirac.
According to International Herald Tribune editor Alison Smale, the appointment of Juppé signals the return of a trusted and hopefully less gaffe-prone hand at the helm of French diplomacy. “Juppe is widely respected as an extremely professional politician”, Smale told FRANCE 24. “He is somebody who knows how to move politically”.
The reshuffle also puts Claude Guéant, a close Sarkozy ally, in place of Brice Hortefeux as interior minister, and Gérard Longuet, a leader of Sarkozy’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, in place of Juppé as defence minister.
New Arab policy only skin-deep?
Addressing France Sunday, Sarkozy broadly laid out the guiding principles for French policy in the region, which he said should avoid interference but firmly back Arab initiatives to achieve democracy.
“We should have one goal: to help these people who have chosen to be free”, the president said. He warned that otherwise, the countries concerned could “sink into violence and end up with dictatorships that are even worse than the previous ones,3 he said.
According to Le Figaro reporter George Malbrunot, Sarkozy’s plainly articulated support of the anti-regime uprisings is meant as a corrective to France’s prior approach in North Africa and the Middle East.
“French policy was too oriented toward support of these regimes, which looked to us like shields against Islamic extremism”, Malbrunot told FRANCE 24.
He contrasted France’s diplomatic posture in the region to that of the US, which, according to Malbrunot, had balanced its backing of leaders like Mubarak and Ben Ali with “regular, intense contact with civil society in these countries via NGOs”.
Sarkozy began his presidential term with an ambitious Arab foreign policy platform, based on his Union for the Mediterranean initiative, cooperation with Arab countries on civil nuclear energy, and aspirations to play a more central role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The fact that Sarkozy’s plans have faltered on all three fronts gives the new diplomatic direction announced – described by Malbrunot as “a more transparent Arab policy guided by more judicious choices” – added urgency.
Indeed France will now try to revamp an image in the Arab world that has been tarnished not only by French proximity to unpopular regimes, but also by controversial domestic politics – more specifically, what Malbrunot called “a certain number of visas we refuse to grant [people from Arab countries]” and “certain debates in France, like the one on the burqa”.
Still, those expecting dramatic change in France’s stance toward the Arab world are likely to be disappointed. According to Malbrunot, the pragmatic demands of foreign policy will mean that Sarkozy’s reshuffle and statement amount more to a change in style than in substance.
“I don’t think France’s options in the region will change radically”, he told FRANCE 24, saying that any concrete change would likely take the form of “adjustments”.
Whether that will be enough to rescue France’s reputation in the Arab world, or Sarkozy’s at home, remains to be seen.