- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In a country known for its relatively staid and academic presidential politics, the rise of Francois Bayrou has complicated the usual left-right duopoly of French politics and left observers in a rare state of uncertainty for what the future may hold.

Sharp differences and aggressive campaigning have characterized a melodramatic campaign that seems to place the very future of France in the balance. But little of the rhetorical fury has been wasted on the subject of trans-Atlantic relationships. Despite the candidates’ dramatic calls for rupture and renewal, Americans should not expect a major change in French posture toward the United States — regardless of who wins.

To better understand the contenders’ likely stance toward the United States, it is worth looking at the forces molding the candidates and their policies. To convert the process into the American political lexicon, the April 22 runoff elections are in many ways a higher-stakes French version of the American party primaries. Similar to American primary front-runners, the leading candidates — assuming Mr. Bayrou’s rise is a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo — are working double time to mollify their worried bases. Recent polls now show Mr. Bayrou’s support flagging as Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal attack the upstart.

But Mr. Bayrou’s position — should he make the runoff — remains strong, with several polls predicting he could win by drawing the supporters of the defeated left- or right-wing candidate.

Were Mr. Sarkozy to win the election, France likely would develop a closer relationship with the United States. Mr. Sarkozy is an admirer of the dynamism of the American economy, and is the rare French politician to seek out a meeting and photo with George W. Bush. He holds hard-line views on counterterrorism and police matters, and seems tolerant of the Bush administration’s zealous methods to pursue suspected terrorists. He strongly supports Israel and seems less interested in continuing Jacques Chirac’s quixotic attempts to promote France as a mediator and voice of Arab concerns. Americans who dream of a “special relationship” with Mr. Sarkozy, similar to U.S.-British relationship, will likely be disappointed, however.

There is no question the French public views American power with deep skepticism, and Mr. Sarkozy would walk a fine line in many dealings with the United States.

Miss Royal is much more of an enigma than Mr. Sarkozy, having spent little time before her candidacy in the international arena. During the campaign season, she has refrained from specific foreign policy discussions, and her campaign has sputtered as she has made some gaffes in foreign affairs.

As a Socialist candidate, she doesn’t share Mr. Sarkozy’s admiration of the American economic model and would not be predisposed to seeking a closer relationship with the United States on that basis. It is also probable Miss Royal will “run against” the United States to some degree as a way of attacking the “pro-U.S.” Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Bayrou. It is still worth noting that personalities and style in interactions between world leaders are important — it is unlikely Miss Royal would have the same contentious instincts as Mr. Chirac. The content of the relationship may not change much, but the tenor of discussion might improve.

One area where Miss Royal has staked an unpopular position is her support for Turkish accession to the European Union, provided the Turks meet certain criteria. On this one issue her position opposes Mr. Sarkozy’s and places her on the side of U.S. foreign policy. This highlights both an uncharacteristic willingness by Miss Royal to depart from safe positions, and perhaps a continuing enthusiasm for the “European Project” not shared by the French mainstream. Her continued support for attempts to revive the European constitution encourages this view.

With Turkey, Miss Royal could be hoping to mobilize young Muslim voters, but she risks conceding to the right the majority that opposes Turkish membership. Given the unlikelihood of Turkish enlargement passing a promised referendum, Miss Royal may be making a purely political calculation that such a position will give her a whole slice of the electorate while Jean-Marie Le Pen and Messrs. Sarkozy and Bayrou fracture the majority.

Mr. Bayrou is an unknown quantity — both in his views and his effectiveness as a leader of a coalition government. One critique he has yet to address in his rapid rise is exactly how he would govern in a country that has essentially been run by two dominant parties. He is adored by those on the left, tired of the stolid Socialist party. He also offers an appealing alternative to center-right voters turned off by Mr. Sarkozy’s hard edges and rhetoric that sometimes verges on xenophobia.

Mr. Bayrou spent some time in the United States and in his something-for-everything style is both an Atlanticist and Europeanist. But his ability to make sweeping changes, particularly domestically, would depend on the coalition he assembles — one likely to be cobbled from moderates from all parties. Consequently, his foreign policy would necessarily reflect the attitudes of a country where George Bush and America’s war on terror remain incredibly unpopular.

Justin Wiseman is a research analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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