Wednesday, January 17, 2007

France's Anti-Anti-Americans

January 16, 2007- WSJ

PARIS -- The French presidential campaign started in earnest this week after the ruling center-right party tapped Nicolas Sarkozy to face off against Socialist Ségolène Royal. His nomination also brings closer the day that Charles de Gaulle will be laid to rest. Wait, you say, the man is dead and buried since 1970. True, but he's gone in body, not in spirit. The general has shaped France's view of the world and itself from the closing days of the last great war. Come May, with a new resident in the Elysée Palace, that looks bound to change.

In Sarko or Ségo, as they're widely known, France would get its first head of state born after World War II. More than a change of the generational guard looms on the horizon. Neither of the presumptive successors to Jacques Chirac sounds beholden to a Gaullist creed characterized by the prickly defense of the Fifth Republic's "grandeur" and a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. To judge by their rhetoric, the two leading candidates are willing apostates, particularly on foreign policy. The repercussions should not be minimized.
[Charles de Gaulle]

The 74-year-old Mr. Chirac is a Gaullist par excellence -- whether storming out last year when a Frenchman dared speak English at a European Union meeting or grandstanding over Iraq in 2003. "I have a simple principle in foreign affairs. I see what the Americans are doing and I do the opposite. That way, I'm sure to be right," he's told colleagues on several occasions, according to Franz-Olivier Giesbert's "La Tragédie du Président," a political obituary of Mr. Chirac published last year.

Electoral setbacks, poor health and plummeting popularity make it unlikely Mr. Chirac will dare seek a third term or be able to hand the reins to a trusted ally such as Dominique de Villepin, the neo-Napoleonic (much less Gaullist) prime minister. Mr. Sarkozy, a nemesis of both men, won their party's Sunday primary with 98% of votes.

On nearly all matters, Mr. Sarkozy sees what Chirac is doing and does the opposite -- especially on America. Mr. Sarkozy hails the Yankee "can-do spirit" and openness to newcomers. France and America, he says, have a common enemy, terrorism. In a visit to Washington last fall, he enthusiastically met with George W. Bush and lashed out against "French arrogance"; neither won him plaudits back home. One of his nicknames -- Sarko l'Américain -- isn't intended as a compliment.

His Hungarian, Greek-Jewish immigrant roots make him unusual in French politics, and partly explain his different approach. The U.S. "is a country that a part of our elites make a habit of detesting," Mr. Sarkozy writes in his manifesto/autobiography, "Témoignage" ("Testimony"), that shot up the best-seller lists here last summer. "That is particularly strange since we've never been at war with this nation, which came to help us, defend us, liberate us on two occasions in our recent history, with which we share close democratic values."

Mr. Sarkozy's book takes a dig also at American arrogance, and in his acceptance speech Sunday he praised President Chirac's opposition to "the war in Iraq, which was a mistake." But his France would pursue an "entente" with Washington, he says in "Témoignage," which comes out in an English translation this spring. In conclusion, he writes that "the world has changed a lot since General de Gaulle's era." His version of Gaullism -- and Mr. Sarkozy does after all lead the general's old camp -- would save "la France éternelle" through a rupture with the Gaullist past.

Less can be said about Ms. Royal's views; she smiles much and reveals little. But, in a series of debates before November's Socialist primary, what Ms. Royal didn't say said plenty. As the other candidates brought out the well-worn trope of France as counterweight to the evil hyperpower, Ms. Royal stayed mum. So far she refuses to play the anti-American card. Though Iraq's "a catastrophe," she says its democracy deserves support. To more guffaws from Paris elites, Ms. Royal calls for "extremely strong diplomatic action to prevent Iran from getting nuclear power, which would be very dangerous for the whole region" and rules out atomic energy for civilian use. That's as hard a line as any out there today. Ms. Royal, wrote a gushing editorialist in Le Monde, "favors a break with the soft consensus that for too many years has prevailed in French foreign policy."

For sure, she is an ingénue who flopped during a maiden trip abroad to Lebanon last month. Her party will constrain her with its anti-Americanism; on its Web site, the Socialists recently went after Mr. Sarkozy as "an American neo-Conservative with a French passport." Mr. Sarkozy, for his part, is inexperienced in foreign affairs as well as unpredictable.

But the two candidates, both in their early 50s, represent a break with the present by virtue of not sharing the ruling generation's preoccupation with the traumas of the 20th century. Gaullism and antiaméricanisme were salves for pride wounded in two world wars and by the loss of Indochina and Algeria. Though anti-Americanism dates back to the 19th century, the word itself entered the French political lexicon in the late 1940s and the dictionary only in 1968. To this day, no other nation's name gets coupled with "anti" in the French language.

Sarko is an anti-anti-American, Ségo at least agnostic, but both are also self-avowedly "pragmatic," which leaves less space for "French glory." This reflects modern reality: France simply matters less, in a larger Europe and with a rising Asia, than before. Polls also show that voters by wide margins want their leaders to "take care of them," not the world beyond, which is a big shift in the last decade.

So are the French turning -- dare one utter this word -- "pro-American"? Not exactly. Mr. Bush's approval ratings here are, at 6%, on par with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. France's large Muslim minority is an emerging factor that might sustain old policies by a different name. That old fox Mr. Chirac may, in spite of huge odds, find a way to stop Ségo and Sarko from taking his job. A new president could change once in office.

Yet the options on offer give the imagination pause. Freed of its hatred for the U.S. and other postwar illusions, this country may be usefully constructive for a change in dealing with Iran, Russia, the Arab world, China, and so on. This France would finally bury the ghosts of its awful 20th century. And de Gaulle could at last rest in peace.

Mr. Kaminski is the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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