TOPICS: Not-so-special Franco-US relations

When Segolene Royal met a Hizbullah MP in Beirut last month, her limited experience of foreign affairs caused an international incident. Ali Ammar told the French Socialists’ presidential candidate that the Bush administration suffered from “unlimited dementia”. He attacked what he called modern-day “nazism” in Israel. Ms Royal was reportedly unfazed. “I agree with a lot of things you have said, notably your analysis of the US,’’ she replied.

Ms Royal explained she was speaking only of US policy in Iraq and had not heard the MP’s remarks about Israel. It is unclear if Ms Royal realised that Ali Ammar was the name by which Algerian guerrilla Ali La Pointe was known.

Ms Royal has so far avoided getting into specifics about France’s future role in the world. But it is clear that she is no Angela Merkel. The German chancellor moved quickly in 2005 to mend fences with Washington flattened by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder. Ms Royal seems disinclined to distance herself from President Jacques Chirac’s anti-Americanism.

“Since General De Gaulle, France has embodied a certain pride and independence vis-a-vis the US,” she said. “We cannot accept the concept of preventive war, nor the concept of good versus evil, nor disengagement in the Middle East, nor the Americans preaching economic liberalism abroad and practising protectionism at home. We cannot tolerate their refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty when they are the world’s No. 1 polluter.” UK Labour party supporters may wait a long time to hear their aspiring prime minister, finance minister Gordon Brown, give voice to such rebellious sentiments. Until now Nicolas Sarkozy, Ms Royal’s main rival in the April-May presidential election and the champion of the French right, has been playing safe. Calling himself a “friend of America”, Sarkozy toured the US last September. To the fury of prime minister and political rival Dominique de Villepin, he described French behaviour as “arrogant”.

But in accepting his party’s presidential nomination last Sunday, Sarkozy reined in his American poodle tendencies, stressing his opposition to unilateralism. Having secured his rightwing base, this appeared part of an overall shift to the anti-Bush political centre.

“Every time there is a presidential election, you hear the same thing,” said a French political insider. “The Americans say: ‘Thank goodness, we are finished with that obnoxious French guy. Here’s a new leader we can work with’. And every time, something happens and it goes ‘Bouf!’ and we are back where we were... It was the same with Pompidou, with Giscard. But these days the problem is not so much between France and the US. It is the US image. “If the Iraq war was the issue that “boufed” France’s not-so-special relationship with Washington in Chirac’s second term, Iran could prove to be the next ticking timebomb, the insider said. “France’s position is clear. Iran may be a much more difficult decision for the next British PM.” — The Guardian