Hollande not that unlike his rival Sarkozy


WORLDVIEW:Socialist win in France’s presidential election likely to mean a change in style, not substance

TO SEE just how seriously French politicians take the cliché that all politics is local, listen out for the discussion on foreign policy during the current presidential election campaign. You won’t hear much.

The focus is so firmly on voters’ most immediate concerns – unemployment and the cost of living – that international affairs are almost entirely absent. Even the euro zone debt crisis – as much a domestic issue as a foreign one – has faded altogether from public debate.

The paradox is that while France is showing little interest in how the outcome of its election might ripple outwards, the rest of the world – Europe in particular – has more reason than usual to pay close attention to events in Paris this spring.

The international stage is arguably where Nicolas Sarkozy has left his deepest impression as president. Critics point out that he was slow to grasp the meaning of the Arab Spring, that he sidelined French diplomacy by micro-managing from the Élysée Palace, or that he failed to break the old clientelist relationships between Paris and its former colonies in Africa.

But his foreign successes – brokering an end to the Georgian war in 2008, or pressing for military intervention in Libya, for example – brought him plaudits that generally eluded him at home.

Sarkozy reversed a long-standing French position by rejoining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) military command and oversaw a warming of relations with the US after the strains of the Bush-Chirac years.

In Europe, he broke one taboo (agreeing to external constraints on the national budget) while making advances on a principle (euro zone economic governance structures as a route towards forming an inner core) that Paris has long cherished.

So what would change if François Hollande, the socialist who leads Sarkozy in opinion polls, was to win the election?

Judging from his manifesto and a new book published under his name, the most significant shifts would be in style, not in substance.

Hollande promises to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy and to show respect for European institutions that Sarkozy ignored.

On the major issues, however, he seeks fairly modest reorientations rather than a firm break with Sarkozy-era policies.

France’s nuclear deterrent and UN Security Council veto are non-negotiable. He wants closer relations with China, India and Brazil (so does Sarkozy), and would work to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to find a two-state solution (this is long-standing French policy). Hollande wants to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year – 12 months earlier than Sarkozy – but on Iran and Syria, the two men’s positions are identical.

There’s a difference in tone when Hollande discusses relations with the US. “France will remain a reliable ally of the United States,” he said recently. “Nevertheless, ally does not mean aligned.” His campaign director has said the decision to rejoin Nato’s military command was taken too quickly in 2007, but stops short of saying it would be reversed.

For Ireland, there are three questions about Hollande’s European policy that will be worth watching. First, he promises to seek renegotiation of the fiscal treaty to add clauses on growth and solidarity, a stance that has earned him a public rebuke from German chancellor Angela Merkel.

If he wins and demands a rewrite, that could cause headaches in Dublin, where a referendum is on the horizon. But would it come to that? Hollande has left his language on the issue quite vague.

A retreat would not be unprecedented: in 1997, the socialist Lionel Jospin campaigned on a pledge to renegotiate the European stability pact, only to settle for a summit on jobs and growth once he became prime minister.

The second question is about corporate tax. In the mid-1990s – long before French taxpayers were lending money to Ireland’s rescue fund – the drive to harmonise corporate tax rates was a “priority project”, as then finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it, for the socialist government of the day.

Hollande wants higher taxes on big companies and the super-rich in France. What would he make of Ireland’s famous 12.5 per cent?

The third question is Hollande’s vision of how the EU should operate after the crisis. Recent EU enlargement rounds diluted French influence, which is partly why Paris is keen on closer euro zone integration and a strong Franco-German couple in a de facto leadership role. Hollande is quite explicit about his desire for a small inner core at the heart of the union.

If he was to be elected, France would see Europe as “two concentric circles”, he writes, the first comprising the “founding members . . . around France and Germany”, who would set new directions and lead from the front.

It would then be up to the others states “to participate in common policies as they wish”.

The idea leaves many questions open, and would be sure to run into opposition. But, on this, as on much else, Hollande is only articulating an idea that France has long held. There’s not much there that Sarkozy would disagree with.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is Paris Correspondent for The Irish Times