The Absent Middle East


The French presidential elections will be followed by elections for the National Assembly, whose composition will largely determine the extent to which the new president can keep her or his domestic promises–within the limits of European Union regulations and directives.

Foreign policy, however, is still the privileged domain of the President. Theoretically, the one field in which the presidential election is truly decisive is foreign policy.

So it is somewhat disconcerting that discussion of foreign policy is almost entirely absent from the current French presidential election campaign, whose first phase ends Sunday, when all but two of the twelve candidates will be eliminated in the first round of voting.

The three candidates with a chance of being elected–Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou–have had practically nothing of interest to say about the outside world, and notably about the crucial Middle East. This could mean that the French are not interested, and so that there are no votes to be gained by talking about it. Or it can mean that to be elected, it is safer to avoid the subject.

Let’s try the second hypothesis. When a marginal candidate, such as the anti-globalization champion José Bové, holds a meeting in Paris, he speaks of the usual left topics : jobs, housing, public services, rights of immigrants, and his own emblematic crusade against GMO plantations. Mild applause. But when he denounces the war in Iraq, or defends the rights of the Palestinians, the crowd bursts into loud cheers and sustained applause.
But Bové has nothing to lose. One can only guess what might await whichever of the three leading candidates who would dare campaign on the theme of keeping France out of U.S. wars in the Middle East and supporting the rights of Palestinians. It is a theme that many voters would heartily approve. The media, however, would raise cries of scandal, accusing the intrepid candidate of irresponsibility and incompetence–or worse

Ségolène in the Middle East

A sample of the danger of foreign policy initiatives was provided by Ségolène Royal’s visit to Lebanon last December. Following her trademark approach of “listening to everybody”, the Socialist candidate brushed aside advice from Druze leader Walid Joumblatt to “go home right away” and insisted on hearing what all sides had to say. A meeting was arranged with the foreign affairs committee of the Lebanese parliament. Among those who attended was an elected representative of Hezbollah, Ali Ammar, who, speaking Arabic, spoke of “the great role France has to play in Lebanon if it can detach itself from the madness of American policy”. According to the report in the local Francophone newspaper, L’Orient-Le Jour, Ammar added that the Lebanese were “proud of their friendship with France and of the fact that Hezbollah’s resistance [to Israeli occupation–the origin of its existence] was inspired by the French resistance to Nazi occupation”.

This was transformed into a “scandal” by confused reports that Royal had allowed Ammar to liken Israel to Nazism in her presence without reacting. In response, she pointed out that neither she nor the French ambassador at her side had heard any mention of Nazism, and that if they had heard such “inadmissible, abominable, odious” remarks, they would have “left the room”. (It was confirmed that the press and the French candidate had been listening to different interpreters.)

Even that wasn’t enough, and commentators have continued to speak of her “foreign policy blunder” in Lebanon as evidence that she is unqualified.
For the pro-Israel lobby, the mere fact of listening to a representative of Hezbollah is unacceptable. Royal’s scandalous willingness to hear the other side was compared unfavorably to the “courage” of the 2002 Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, who when visiting the Near East as prime minister denounced Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization.

Now, it so happens that, in the real world outside the media, that statement by Jospin was negatively interpreted by much of the French population as a gratuitous concession to Israel and its lobby. And in conversations, just about everyone concedes that as President, Jospin would have followed the United States into the catastrophic Iraq quagmire, unlike Chirac.

The fact is that despite the sniping from commentators and even members of her own Socialist Party, as the first round campaign is ending, Ségolène Royal is doing much better in the polls than Jospin was doing before his humiliating elimination by Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has actually run a much more vigorous campaign, making quite as much sense, and usually more, than her main rivals–while, unlike the male candidates, having to make strategic choices of wardrobe. True, the whole spectrum has been moved to the right by the European Union straitjacket, but she is still relatively to the left, at least in words, at least during the campaign.

But how would she be in foreign policy?

This would inevitably depend largely on her choice of advisors. Foreign policy is not the major area of competence of most professional politicians, whose primary concern is to work their own home turf. An exception is Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the independent-minded former presidential candidate, who this time decided to back Ségolène Royal, hoping to give her some useful advice. He, like such veteran realist diplomats as Hubert Védrine, might be able to preserve some remnants of France’s independent foreign policy under a Royal presidency. On the other hand, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist with solid business backing, is angling to be prime minister if Ségolène wins–or even if Bayrou wins, for that matter. DSK is every bit as pro-Israel and pro-U.S. as Sarkozy, if not more so.

The case of Pascal Boniface

U.S. foreign policy has largely fallen into the hands of lobbies and privately-financed think tanks. In France, the foreign ministry, known by its address on the Quai d’Orsay, still plays the leading role. The Quai d’Orsay has a tradition of realistic appraisal of situations and French interests. But a generational change is underway, and some observers fear that the next generation will be heavily influenced by the media, the pro-Israel lobby and the sort of moralism that is used by both to justify U.S. foreign policy adventures.

Pascal Boniface is the director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris, a think tank linked to the Socialist Party. In April 2001, he wrote a note for PS general secretary François Hollande urging the party to overcome its fear of taking a clear position on Palestine. As a professor, he was witness to students’ growing sympathy for the Palestinians and outrage at their treatment. To the party’s fears of “losing the Jewish vote”, Boniface replied that making policy according to the wishes of a “community” constituency was not only unprincipled, but in the long run dangerous. The conspicuous influence of the organized Jewish community on policy, he warned, could only inspire the rise of an opposing lobby based in the much larger Muslim community. This threatened to divide France along ethnic or religious community lines, a prospect deeply dreaded by Socialists.

For having made this observation, Boniface became the target of a campaign led by Jewish commentators and organizations which came close to destroying his career, even though he is a stalwart defender of Israel and his views on the Middle East conflict are quite moderate. However, he is still there, and the upshot of the incident may be that, in France as in the United States, impatience is growing with the lobby even in mainstream circles, and even in the Socialist Party, which is traditionally Israel’s strongest supporter.

Human rights

These days, nobody can defend Israel’s actions in the occupied territories of Palestine. Distraction rather than defense is the pro-Israel strategy. Attention is focused on the Iranian « threat to Israel’s existence » or else on Darfur, where many more people are being killed. All three leading French candidates have signed onto the promise to “do something” about Darfur, probably economic sanctions against Sudan. If the younger generation is sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians, it is also very sensitive to human rights in general, and scornful of political realism.

Sarkozy did nothing to improve his chances with his obsequious performance in Washington. His handshake with George W. Bush is the favorite illustration on the « anybody but Sarkozy » web sites. If he should become president, the right-wing candidate would certainly love to fortify an alliance with George W. and the neo-conservatives. But in all probability, they won’t be there much longer. Sarkozy will have arrived too late. On the other hand, Ségolène Royal paints a glowing picture of a future presidential sisterhood with President Hillary Clinton. It is not clear whether she has taken the full measure of Hillary’s dismal foreign policy outlook.

DIANA JOHNSTONE lives in Paris. She can be reached at


Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at