On Sunday, May 6, French voters go to the polls in the final round of a presidential race that has seen the field whittled down to two contenders: the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande, and conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP, by its French acronym).
It is a race that has become as much about the style of leadership as the substance of it, and nowhere is this more starkly clear than on issues of foreign policy. While Sarkozy and Hollande have clashed on foreign policy rhetoric, analysts and observers of French policy-making tell Al Jazeera it is difficult to see the Socialist challenger making any major substantive changes, were he to be elected to office.
This is not strictly unexpected, of course, given that French foreign policy in the modern era has been largely shaped by what has been described as French exceptionalism or universalism.
“As Sarkozy [has said], France believes that it embodies a set of universal, humanist values [and] there is certainly the feeling in France, and in policy-making circles, that France owes it to itself to make the relevant investments – not only in national defence from the standpoint of avoiding threats, but also the ability to project those universal values globally,” Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council told Al Jazeera.
A 2011 US congressional research paper, for example, identified a French “self-identity that calls for efforts to spread French values and views, many rooted in democracy and human rights”.
Existing as foreign policy does, then, in a space closely linked with national identity and ideology, it is unsurprising that even two candidates who are so different in policy on domestic issues should possibly converge – in substance, if not in rhetoric – when it comes to projecting French power abroad.
Apparent clashes of policy
Foreign policy has, however, been an issue in this campaign, with Sarkozy and Hollande particularly locking horns on engagement with the United States and NATO, and on European policy.
Under Sarkozy’s presidency, France has shrugged off the political traditions of the past several decades and engaged far more actively with the United States and NATO. In 2009, the country fully reintegrated into NATO’s military command structure, reversing a policy that President Charles de Gaulle had implemented more than 40 years earlier.
The Sarkozy presidency has also seen the number of French combat troops serving in Afghanistan increase to 30,000 (in November 2009). Sarkozy has, however, announced that those troops would be withdrawing a year earlier than initially planned, bringing them home in 2013.
Hollande, in contrast, has promised to speed up French disengagement from Afghanistan by issuing a withdrawal order soon after assuming the presidency, thereby effectively bringing troops home by the end of 2012. He has also promised to evaluate the French decision to join NATO’s military command.
Another major point of contention has been on the country’s policies towards Africa. Hollande has repeatedly promised to restructure French policy in Africa – where many of its former colonies are located – on the basis of equality and solidarity. He has not, however, provided specifics of what said policy would be.
In contrast, Sarkozy has often been criticised for his policies in the region. In 2007, early in his presidency, he made a much-maligned speech in Senegal, where he lamented that the “African man has never really entered history”, and said that the continent’s “problem is that her present is permeated with nostalgia for the paradise lost of her childhood”.
Sarkozy appears yet to deliver on a 2007 campaign promise to cut France’s military presence in Africa to the “strict minimum”, and, at present, the country continues to operate bases in Gabon, Chad and the Ivory Coast.
Furthermore, French forces were a vital part of military interventions in Libya (to remove former leader Muammar Gaddafi from power) and the Ivory Coast (where violence broke out after a disputed presidential election in late 2010).
Sarkozy was at the forefront of calls for international intervention in Libya after a popular uprising against Gaddafi turned violent, and French troops – acting partially under a UN mandate – were instrumental in settling the Ivory Coast’s political crisis in favour of current president Alassane Ouattara, who was internationally recognised as the winner of the presidential election.
Under Sarkozy, French special forces have also seen action in failed hostage rescue attempts in Mali and Niger.
A final bone of contention on international issues has been closer to home: on solving the Eurozone debt crisis. Hollande has criticised the policy response formulated by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as being too focused on budget cuts and austerity, saying a pro-growth policy was needed instead.
Hollande’s remarks have been so strong on the subject, in fact, that Merkel refused to meet with the Socialist candidate in the run-up to the polls, and all but endorsed Sarkozy for a second term.
But are they really that different, Hollande and Sarkozy?
Consider the points of contention, issue by issue.
On African policy, Dr Christian Lequesne, the director for the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI) at the Paris-based Sciences Po university, says that, while Hollande is employing the rhetoric of equality, French policy in its former colonies has an inertia of its own, one that “goes beyond the president”.
“It is such a complicated network of relations between politicians, both from the right and the left, and between intelligence services, that sometimes it is difficult to control this policy,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The discourse will of course perhaps be different, but I’m not sure that Hollande will succeed in really imposing a new African policy.”
Lequesne also pointed out that Sarkozy’s statements in 2007 were made early in his presidency and were consequently “recognised as being a mistake”.
In 2008, Sarkozy ordered a review of French foreign and defence policy, with a focus on security concerns in the coming decades, and there was a clear stress on the “arc of danger” of Africa’s Sahel region, identified in the paper as being the location of many failed or failing states.
Dungan believes that the same reasoning that has led France to maintain its presence in the region – both militarily and economically – will apply to Hollande, were he to become president.
“Economic development [in the region] has assumed strategic political importance for France,” he said, and the country will have to maintain a presence – both military and diplomatic – in those states, if it is to stick to the strategic outlook expressed in the 2008 white paper.
French policy in Africa is at present, Dungan said, driven by the use of economic development to neutralise zones of instability and possible terrorist threats, as well access to natural resources. None of those concerns, he told Al Jazeera, are likely to evaporate, were Hollande to take over the presidency.
The story is similar when it comes to the pullout from Afghanistan. But what about a reassessment of French involvement in NATO?
“Nothing will happen,” said Lequesne. “It’s true that when Sarkozy took the decision in 2009, the Socialists had a critical discourse, saying it was the end of French independence vis a vis the US, but now, if you speak to most defence experts of the Socialist party, they will say it would be a mistake to pull back.”
Dungan agrees with that assessment of Hollande’s likely policy, suggesting that the fundamentals of the French relationship with the United States are unlikely to change, because there are still shared interests over defence cooperation and counter-terrorism.
“In terms of what Hollande would be likely to do, I think [it is] probably more to distinguish from Sarkozy – [who is sometimes derisively referred to as] Sarkozy l’Américain – rather than out of any ideological bent. I think that there probably would be a return to a slightly more distant Gaullism,” he said.
He added that the 12 month difference in withdrawal timelines from Afghanistan also effectively “amounts to being the same”.
Finally, there is the issue of European policy. Here, the two presidential contenders have staked out more starkly different positions, with Sarkozy supporting a pan-European solution to the debt crisis that focuses on budget cuts and robust European fiscal support mechanisms, while Hollande has suggested that austerity drives are unlikely to succeed, unless they are accompanied by economic growth.
Observers have, however, suggested that. while Hollande has championed a pro-growth position, his policies will likely look quite similar to Sarkozy’s, were he to be elected.
“He has no choice, to a certain extent, and his margin of manoeuvre is very weak,” opined Lequesne. “Of course there is a difference in the discourse … Hollande came back with the rhetoric of growth, but he knows in fact that if you want to have growth you need also to clean up public finances.”
Hollande has also softened some of the rhetoric he has employed to criticise the German approach to the debt crisis, saying in a recent interview that the “German-French friendship is indispensable for Europe”, and that he intends to work closely with Chancellor Merkel.
Another subject on which both candidates have consistently appeared on the same page is the recent French policy of increased interventionism. Sarkozy led, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UK Foreign Minister William Hague and Qatar Foreign and Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, diplomatic efforts to create a mandate for intervention in Libya; and has also been at the forefront of calls for greater intervention in the Syrian crisis. Hollande and his party have supported both positions, and, while there have been minor disagreements, both left- and right-leaning mainstream parties in French politics have been supportive of the interventionism that Sarkozy has championed.
“If you take this issue of military intervention outside Europe, you don’t have a clear right-left cleavage in this country. Most of the Socialist members of the parliament were supportive when it came to the military operations in Libya, and on this issue, you don’t have big cleavages between the two camps,” Lequesne told Al Jazeera, adding that he did not expect Hollande to reverse existing French policies on this front.
Dungan believes that, while Hollande’s approach to exercising power may be slightly less brash, he would nonetheless adopt many of the same positions Sarkozy has.
“I think Hollande would have the same policy inclination, but in practical terms would probably be more multilateralist in the sense of not bending the rules [and not getting out ahead of his EU colleagues],” he said.
“Sarkozy likes to exercise power – we’ve seen that domestically, [also] when he was minister of the interior. Hollande never has exercised power. But I think we need to make the huge distinction between being weak and indecisive on the one hand, and being circumspect and deliberate on the other.”
Of personalities and positions
Dungan’s point on exercising power speaks to another issue that has made a regular appearance in the debates surrounding this presidential election: the differing personalities of the two candidates.
While Hollande is billed as a more private, and quiet, political leader, Sarkozy has been criticised by many in France for his bombast. Coupled with Hollande’s more welfare-based social policies and the conservative policies of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, the public effect of the differing personalities has been to apparently create a distance between Sarkozy and the French general public.
“[Sarkozy] comes across [to the French] as someone too conflictual and sometimes arrogant and he never really fulfilled the traditional role of the president of the republic,” said Lequesne.
“It’s interesting, he probably thought that he was going to change the style of the role, but it’s not so easy. The French population expects from the president somebody with a lot of dignity, being beyond the conflicts. Somebody who also plays the role of an honest broker vis a vis society, and he is absolutely incapable of playing that. Hollande will probably go back to this role. He is somebody who will probably be closer from what we expect from a president of the republic.”
Sarkozy, he added, comes across more as a “tough businessman” than a “statesman”.
As for Hollande, he claims that Sarkozy’s style of presidency has led to “constant movement, improvisation and wild scrambling when plans fail”, and that his presidency would change this approach, both on domestic and foreign policy.
Ultimately, however, the actual substance of said foreign policy is unlikely to change, both due to the inertia of existing policies and the fact that both candidates do not adopt wildly different agendas.
“On foreign policy … the pressure coming from society is relatively limited compared to domestic issues,” said Lequesne. “I don’t see any major changes in the way that French diplomacy is operating.”
Dungan added: “French diplomacy is absolutely astonishingly coherent … It almost reminds one of the Vatican, where you have the Vatican sending out a message, and you have millions of priests and millions of pulpits around the world preaching the same message. French diplomacy works very much the same way.”
The only difference, Dungan suggests, in the content of that message should Hollande win the poll, would be one of style, not substance.
“Hollande’s foreign policy [across the board] would be, in reality, almost identical, and, in its appearance, slightly more standoffish, than Sarkozy today.”
On foreign affairs, then, it would appear that regardless of whether the winner of Sunday’s poll is a socialist or a right-wing conservative, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim