Sarkozy's Message: I Won't Be A Poodle

French President elect Nicolas Sarkozy reacts at the Gaveau concert hall in Paris, Sunday, May 6, 2007, shortly after the closure of the polling stations for the second round of the presidential election. Energized French voters elected reform-minded Nicolas Sarkozy as their new president on Sunday by a comfortable winning margin.
AP
To the world, President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy sends this message: France is back.

Sarkozy said in his victory speech that his France will stand up against tyranny, dictators and fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women.

Maybe the most significant result from this side of the Atlantic is that Sarkozy promises to be a lot more friendly toward Washington than outgoing president Jacques Chirac, who forcefully opposed the Iraq War, and who looked to build a European counterweight to U.S. influence, reports CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

But Sarkozy, in his victory speech, pointedly noted that the United States must do more about global warming.

By urging the United States to take the lead on fighting global warming, Sarkozy also signaled that an invigorated friendship with Washington would not mean subservience. His speech Sunday provided comfort to a populace worried that France's global voice is fading.

"The message was, 'Don't take me for granted,"' said Francois Heisbourg, a leading expert on French strategic and foreign policy. "This was wise in terms of domestic policies but also in terms of the overall relationship. He was saying, 'I'm not going to be a poodle."'

Sarkozy has won the label "Sarko the American" for openly admiring the get-up-and-go spirit in the United States, and indicated that he would toe a less-accommodating line toward the Arab world than his predecessors — whose close ties to the Middle East were rooted in France's past as a colonial power in the region.

Overall, though, his campaign gave short shrift to foreign policy, and his limited international experience has left many wondering how he will steer France in global affairs.

Sarkozy sought to quell that uncertainty in a speech barely 30 minutes after his electoral triumph.

France, he said, will stand alongside "all those persecuted by tyranny, by dictatorships." He reached out to "all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance, freedom, democracy and humanism."

"France will not abandon women who are condemned to the burqa," the full head-and-body covering worn by women in Afghanistan and some Muslim women in Britain and elsewhere, he said. He did not elaborate on how that would translate into policy.

Sarkozy was a member of the government that instituted a law banning head scarves and other "ostentatious" religious apparel in classrooms.

In his speech, he appealed for all warring parties in the Middle East to "overcome hate."

"France will be at the side of the world's oppressed," he went on. "That is the message of France, that is the identity of France, that is the history of France."

While some of the language was reminiscent of Chirac — a fellow conservative and one-time Sarkozy mentor — the message itself was new.

"This is a new generation," Heisbourg said. "It is a clear change. It is values rather than interests. He talked about what the Americans would call 'democracy promotion.'"

Chirac, too, spoke often of tolerance — but critics said that meant tolerating African dictators with whom France harbored longtime ties, and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Russia and China. Though he cajoled the Western community into intervening in Bosnia in 1995, Chirac later spoke more of cultural understanding than exporting Western values.

Both Chirac and Sarkozy say the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a mistake, and the president-elect has called for a deadline for a U.S. pullout. But Sarkozy has not let that dampen his enthusiasm for the trans-Atlantic relationship: He eagerly met with President Bush in September, drawing criticism from a populace that has had a complex and sometimes bumpy relationship with the United States.

He has also indicated that he would oppose war against Iran, although analysts predict he will stake out a tough stance in the coming weeks in international efforts to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The most obvious shift is likely to be felt in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. Sarkozy has reached out to France's 5 million Muslims, but he also has been more open to Israel than Chirac; his support among French Jews was very strong.

"He has abandoned whatever remained of France's Arab policy," said Olivier Roy, a specialist on Islam at the National Center for Scientific Research. "It will mean less activism in the Arab world. He has chosen a position like the American neo-conservative position."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed confidence that Israeli-French relations would improve after years of acrimony.

In Algeria, observers braced for possible tensions with Sarkozy. Algerian daily El Watan turned his speech on its head, saying Monday: "The strong image of a humanist and democratic France will suffer a terrible blow with Nicolas Sarkozy."

Roy said Sarkozy's burqa message was aimed as much at a domestic audience as a foreign one. "It was a statement against fundamentalism," he said. It also came, he noted, as France is negotiating for the release of a French aid worker held hostage for more than a month by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy's initial foreign policy focus, however, is likely to stay closer to home, in aiming to mend a frayed European Union.