Hollande loyalist Ayrault ushers in no-frills French foreign policy
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On February 11, 2016, Jean-Marc Ayrault, the biggest Germanophile among the French political class, succeeded Laurent Fabius as minister of foreign affairs. His arrival signals a change of tone on several thorny diplomatic issues.
A confidante of President François Hollande, Ayrault is seen as a seasoned and cool-headed leader. But his lack of diplomatic experience will likely be questioned as he juggles the volatile Syria, Libya and Iran dossiers.
Despite his lack of experience, Ayrault and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier already embody the ideal of the Franco-German special relationship. Last month when the French cabinet reshuffle was announced, Steinmeier congratulated, in French, his "dear" Ayrault.
The return to government of Hollande’s former prime minister, one of the rare French politicians to have mastered the language of Goethe, thanks to his past career as a professor of German, pleased officials in Berlin.
"Jean-Marc Ayrault is well positioned to revitalise the [Franco-German] relationship at a moment when the two countries have realised that their relative estrangement hurts both of them,” Pascal Boniface, director of the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), wrote in an editorial published on his organisation’s website on February 16.
The relationship between the two foreign ministers is so close that Ayrault was accompanied by his German counterpart on his first official trip abroad to Ukraine.
"Angela Merkel is right to open the doors of her country to refugees"
Ayrault believes that together France and Germany are the motor of Europe and should be united, but not everyone in Hollande's administration agrees. While Prime Minister Manuel Valls asserted that the EU should convey the message that “we won’t accept any more refugees,” Ayrault hailed the welcoming policies of the German chancellor. “Angela Merkel is politically and morally right to open the doors to refugees,” he said on March 10 on French TV station iTélé.
Merkel's government, which has already accepted more than a million refugees, must now deal with the still large numbers heading to Germany. Merkel has been criticised even from within her own camp and has been forced to take measures such as limiting family unification and accelerating deportation proceedings for people who are not eligible for asylum.
Barbara Kunz, a researcher at the Committee for the Studies of Franco-German Relations (Cerfa) explained to FRANCE 24 in early March that the political crisis the chancellor is facing could have serious consequences: “The big problem for Angela Merkel is, of course, [the risk] of losing the next election.”
"Encourage the Syrian opposition to return to the negotiating table"
In the face of the flow of Syrian refugees fleeing war and trying to get to Europe, peace in Syria is becoming an increasingly urgent policy goal. American and European foreign ministers are set to meet in Paris on March 13 to take stock before resuming talks in Geneva.
Ayrault said that the key is to ensure that “everything proceeds as we wish” in order to “encourage the opposition to return to the negotiating table.”
Furthermore, he said the Europeans must also ask the Americans, who, along with the Russians are sponsoring the truce agreement, "to be closely involved in monitoring the effectiveness of the cease-fire in Syria."
Continuing with Fabius’ firm stance on the Syrian conflict, Ayrault underscored at the end of February that France “won’t put itself next to those who want to sweep human rights and humanitarian law under the rug.”
The negotiations are a long way from over as all the parties remain at loggerheads. But on this count “Jean-Marc Ayrault has the sole advantage of being able to start over,” Boniface said.
“Nothing is ever automatic”
Another burning issue that Ayrault inherited is the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation. At the end of January, Fabius shocked the Jewish state by saying that if negotiations failed France would recognise the Palestinian state. Upon his arrival, Ayrault immediately adopted a more measured position and on March 9 during a trip to Cairo assured observers that “nothing is ever automatic.”
France’s chief diplomat will, crucially, be responsible for convening an international conference before the summer, as Fabius announced.
With presidential elections a little over a year away, Ayrault’s mission will be primarily, unlike his predecessor -- who famously signed the high-profile Iran treaty and COP21 climate accords -- to maintain a steady hand and not rock the boat.