How will Europe’s new leaders
impact Mid-East?

By Linda S. Heard

The good news for many in this region is that British Prime Minister Tony Blair - the co-responsible for the Iraq misadventure - has announced his intention to formally resign on June 27th when the Queen will give him her blessing to step down. His successor Gordon Brown intends to base his Middle-East policy on hearts and minds and promises to give the British people a bigger role in decision-making.

Across the Channel, however, the news may not be so good. Long-time friend to the region President Jacques Chirac has stepped down and the French have opted to replace him with his former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a staunch supporter of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, who has been dubbed “an American neo-conservative with a French passport” and is popularly known as “Sarko the American”.

Whereas Brown has yet to publicly map out his country’s Middle-East strategy and is somewhat of an unknown quantity on the subject despite his high-profile cabinet position during the Blair years, Sarkozy’s stance is well-known and well-documented.

While interviewed by Thibaud Collin and Philippe Verdin in 2004, Sarkozy strongly sympathized with Jewish people’s love of Israel.

“Should I remind you of the visceral attachment of every Jew to Israel as a second mother homeland? There is nothing outrageous about it. Every Jew carries within him a fear passed down through generations, and he knows that if one day he will not feel safe in his country, there will always be a place that would welcome him. And this is Israel”.

Sarkozy’s ability to empathize with the Jewish plight may be reinforced by his own Jewish ancestry. His maternal grandfather Aron Mallah, to whom the young Sarkozy was particularly close, was a Greek Jew from Salonika, who emigrated to France in 1917, while other family members were prominent in the Zionist movement. His wife Cecilia is of Spanish-Jewish stock.

In fairness, a leader should not be stereotyped or pre-judged on the basis of his antecedents or that of his spouse, which may have no bearing on his personal philosophy or politics, so let’s take a closer look at Sarkozy’s own record for clues.

Firstly, he is said to be a close friend of the right-wing Israeli politician and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is angling to succeed Ehud Olmert currently disgraced over the war with Lebanon.

Secondly, like most US politicians hoping to succeed, Sarkozy has paid due homage to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and has visited Jerusalem where he claimed a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial marked a turning point in his life. His promises to visit the West Bank and Gaza have so far failed to materialize.

It’s therefore unlikely that he’ll get a Ramallah street named after him in the way that Chirac was honoured.

Sarkozy announced his new cabinet at the end of May, which includes socialist Bernard Kouchner, a staunch pro-American and supporter of the invasion of Iraq, as Foreign Minister. Former Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is dedicated to restoring solid ties with the US, is now Minister of the Interior, while Sarkozy has appointed his friend Brice Hortefeux to the post of Minister of Immigration and National Identity.

Following the 2005 riots, Hortefeux attributed the unrest to the failure of North African immigrants to assimilate. “For 20 years, urban policy has been plugging holes but has not resolved the fundamental problem of integrating” North African immigrants and their descendants into French Society, he said while pledging to “find a way out of this with determination and firmness”.

The new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, Sarkozy’s brainchild, is itself controversial. French Holocaust survivor and former president of the European Parliament Simone Veil expressed her preference for a Ministry of Immigration and Integration.

Sarkozy, a nationalist, is known to be anti-immigration, although in the run-up to elections he softened his position somewhat allowing there is room in France for foreigners with needed special skills.

Indeed, Sarkozy is treated with suspicion by France’s mainly North African immigrant community following his reference to disadvantaged young people protesting police brutality as “scum that should be washed away with a power hose” and for his recent statement that “France will not abandon women who are condemned to the burqa” - generally interpreted to signal his strong opposition to Islamic fundamentalism.

Topping Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda is the cementing of relations with Paris and Washington strained by the Iraq war. In his victory speech he said this. “I want to call out to our American friends to tell them they can count on our friendship”.

It wasn’t long before he received congratulatory phone calls from Bush and Blair, while Democratic senator Charles Schumer told CNN “It would be nice to have someone who’s head of France who doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction against the United States”. Other Western countries, including Spain and Italy, were less enthusiastic.

Sarkozy showed his solidarity with George W. Bush over Iraq when visiting the US President last September. There, he slammed members of his own government for their anti-war positions and told his American hosts “You must have loathed us then”.

He has described Chirac’s act of keeping France from entering the war as “an historic mistake” and predicts that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would “lead to chaos”.

However he has recently vowed not to be an American poodle and has criticised the Bush administration for not doing more to alleviate global warming.

Sarkozy’s position on Iran is less clear. It is generally believed he would oppose war with Iran to curtail its uranium enrichment programme but he may be in favour of additional UN sanctions and may even be prepared to apply unilateral sanctions against Iran additional to those mandated by the Security Council.

While being interviewed by Patrick Poive d’Arvor on the TF1 channel, he maintained Iran is “the most important problem on the international scene” and “calls made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the destruction of Israel are the most profound threat to international peace”.

Congratulating Sarkozy on his election triumph, his friend Benjamin Netanyahu told him that as a world leader his biggest priority should be Iran. According to, Sarkozy responded by saying he intended to prove his friendship with Israel.

On Lebanon, Sarkozy is likely to deviate from his predecessor who was recognised as a great friend to the Lebanese. During last summer’s war he refused to join a European call for a ceasefire, while championing Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, which he termed the aggressor in the conflict.

On Syria, it is believed he may show more balance and could encourage Israel to engage in peace talks with Damascus. Khalaf Al-Jarad, the editor of Al-Thawra said he was “expecting Mr. Sarkozy to re-evaluate relations between France and Syria, which have been strained over the past two years because of the prejudiced views of the outgoing president”.

“We are hoping for relations based on objectivity and not the sort of personal animosity that characterized the Chirac era,” Al-Jarad said.

For Turkey, Sarkozy’s win is thought to be particularly depressing. Sarkozy has long opposed Turkey’s EU entry on the grounds it is an “Asian country” that does not share European values.

“I don’t want to see the Kurdish, Hezbollah and Palestine problems become European problems,” he said. “I don’t want a Europe, which will be neighbouring Iraq or Iran”.

According to an article in the Turkish Daily News dated May 11 and titled “Top Sarkozy aide promises rocky road for Turkey”, member of the European Parliament Alain Lamassoure, one of Sarkozy’s confidantes, said Sarkozy will “pursue his pre-election declaration of breaking accession negotiations with Turkey”.

Instead, France’s new president has proposed an economic union of Mediterranean countries that would include Turkey and bring Israel and it Arab neighbours into the same forum. Turkey views this move as a ploy to keep it permanently out of Europe and regards such an entity as a ‘second-best’ reward.

“This cannot be an alternative to Turkish membership of the EU,” a foreign policy advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister told the International Herald Tribune.

That said, Guy Makki, a French Counsellor for the Gulf region, told the Gulf News that France’s Mid-East policy is “not likely to change”.

As for Brown’s views on the region these are difficult to fathom, with some feeling he has maintained almost a monk’s silence on the more controversial aspects. However, we may be able to draw some conclusions based on the following snippets.

On combating terrorism he has spoken of the need to battle for hearts and minds and has said the West should launch an ideological battle against extremism similar to that which triggered the collapse of the Cold War.

On America “a country that people identify with liberty and opportunity” he says he has a strong relationship. He often spends his vacations in New England and has close links with Democrats.

However, while he is likely to follow Blair’s lead when it comes to maintaining firm trans-Atlantic links, it is believed he will be less accommodating to US diktats. He is also less likely to pursue the spread of US-style democracy within the Mid-East. There have been reports that George W. Bush has concerns.

On Iran, Brown has signalled a fundamental difference from Tony Blair and the Bush camp. He believes it is important to engage with Iran over Iraq and other issues to avoid a disastrous clash and prefers to use carrots over sticks during negotiations.

As people, Sarkozy and Brown are very different. Sarkozy celebrated his win with a three-day break on the luxury yacht of a billionaire friend, a vacation that was earlier described in terms of ‘a retreat”.

Brown took the Underground en route to a venue where he gave a talk on his prime ministerial hopes and is not expected to use Chequers, the Prime Minister’s luxurious country house, except to house foreign dignitaries.

Sarkozy is considered brash and dictatorial. Brown, on the other hand, promises to lead ‘a humble’ government that will compassionate yet tough. “I will listen, I will learn, I will strive to meet people’s aspirations”, he said. “I want to lead a government humble enough to know its place”. And when it comes to decisions related to taking the country to war, Brown is committed to giving Parliament more of a say.

Nicolas Sarkozy has already moved into the Elysée Palace while Gordon Brown must wait until June 27th to fulfil his long held dream. He may have defeated all challengers for the top job and received Blair’s grudging blessing but he still has to woo the British people.

The public recently showed its disillusionment with the Labour Party during recent local elections when Labour won only 34 local council seats as opposed to the Conservatives who gained 165. With British elections looming in 2009 or 2010, Brown’s stay in Number Ten could be brief.

Unless this dour son of a Church of Scotland minister can shake off his own participation in the Blair government of spin and subservience to Uncle Sam by reversing controversial policies and bringing British troops out of Iraq, he will face a tough road. Can Britain’s longest-serving finance minister be as successful as Prime Minister? Can he bring on the charm to pull voters to his side and convince them of his sincerity?

In the months ahead we’ll be sure to know more.

It’s unlikely the Arab world will find a true ally in Nicolas Sarkozy but there is every chance that Brown could turn out to be a much needed friend.

In the meantime, America’s blue-eyed boy Nicolas Sarkozy should bear in mind US presidential elections set for November 2008 when, unless he can cast off his neoconservative label, France could once again find itself out in the cold.


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