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Will France’s new government take a laissez-faire approach to Iran?

May 8, 2012 | Ahron Shapiro

Will France's new government take a laissez-faire approach to Iran?
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The election of French Socialist party leader Francois Hollande to his country’s presidency on Sunday – a victory over Nicolas Sarkozy which had been expected following his strong showing in the first round of voting on April 22 – is certain to impact French foreign policy regarding Iran, as well as Israel.

Sarkozy had been seen as one of Europe’s most strident opponents to Iran’s nuclear program. According to Hollande’s advisers, as well as many analysts, France is unlikely to continue in its role as a spearhead for European action on Iran under its new government.

In Teheran, the Iranian government has called upon the incoming French government to reject Sarkozy’s policies and adopt a new, “realistic approach” to its relations with the Islamic Republic.

“We hope that the new government (of France) will see the reality of international developments, specially those in the Middle-East, and the righteousness of our nation and country through a realistic approach, and show a respectable and fair attitude,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast told the Fars News Agency.

While the degree remains to be seen, by Hollande’s advisers’ own account, there is little doubt a change in approach is in the offing.

In an article written before the final round of elections, Jamey Keaten from the Associated Press asked one of Hollande’s chief advisers about France’s willingness to use its military under Hollande’s leadership or support foreign military intervention in Iran and elsewhere.

“Would a Hollande presidency be as tough abroad?” Keaten asked, rhetorically.

Jean-Louis Bianco, a Socialist Party lawmaker who was President Francois Mitterrand’s longtime chief-of-staff, said Hollande “of course” could envision the use of force abroad — as long as authorized through the United Nations.
“We have to give the Annan plan all the chance it needs,” said Bianco, perhaps the best-known name on Hollande’s team of foreign policy advisers, in a telephone interview.
The author of a 2008 parliamentary report on Iran, Bianco said international sanctions against the Islamic regime over its controversial nuclear program are having an impact.
“Our line would be one of great firmness,” he said, but insisted France would invariably oppose military action even if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. “We won’t support an Israeli or American military action in Iran … An Israeli strike won’t prevent the Iranians from continuing” their program, he said.

 

Diplomatic analysts also expect to see new policies from France.

At Commentary, Jonathan Tobin says that Sarkozy’s willingness to lead the European charge on Iran is unlikely to be emulated by Hollande, which may cause a breakdown in European resolve and increase pressure on the Obama Administration to lead on the Iran issue.

To the surprise of many, the Europeans have been consistently ahead of Washington when it came to doing more than talking about stopping Iran. For this, Sarkozy deserved much of the credit. But his exit will create a void on the issue that Hollande is not likely to fill even if, at least on the surface, his position is not much different from that of his predecessor.
That will leave EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is already in charge of the P5+1 talks, with a much freer hand to craft a deal that will please the ayatollahs more than [US] President [Barack] Obama. Though few believe the Iranians would actually make good on any promises made in the talks, there is a strong possibility they would be willing to agree, at least in principle, to an accord that would satisfy Europeans who are eager to back down from their threat of an oil embargo later this year. No other European leader, including a beleaguered British Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to fill Sarkozy’s shoes on this point and stop Ashton from playing the Iranians’ game.

On the Fox News website, former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said he believed France might support the weakening of Iranian sanctions in the near future.

On Iran’s increasingly menacing nuclear weapons program, Hollande’s election almost certainly means a weakening of the already weak EU position, and decreased pressure on Tehran. As Iran’s negotiator’s press for legitimisation of their well-advanced uranium enrichment program, Hollande will likely be sympathetic to accepting what Iran already has in place, and even relaxing new EU economic sanctions set to come into effect this summer.

Writing in the Asian Times ahead of the second round of French elections, US-based Iranian political scientist Kaveh Afrasiabi, who has generally taken the line that the US should be much more accommodating of Teheran, said that Iran was fervently hoping for a socialist victory in order to weaken the West’s ability to maintain a credible military option against her nuclear program. In fact, the article was carried on the website for the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran.

Hollande – if president – could demonstrate a foreign policy shift by adopting a more independent posture than the US-subservient approach of his predecessor, who closely followed the US’s footsteps in the Middle East, and especially in punishing Iran over its nuclear program.
In turn, this could spur the White House to be more serious about finding a diplomatic solution, instead of constantly playing with the fire of military confrontation with Iran.

During the campaign, Hollande had failed to win over the hearts and minds of French Jewry. Community leaders had expressed trepidation, not only over Hollande’s Iran policy but also his overall Israel policy, where there was worry he might be influenced by his left-wing allies.

On April 25, Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the umbrella organisation representing the French Jewish community voiced this concern in an op-ed for Ha’aretz, in a piece that some said was tantamount to an endorsement of Sarkozy.

“The main question that arises for the Jewish community, if François Hollande becomes the President of France, is the influence that might be exerted by those socialist leaders who have negative views towards Israel’s policies. Beyond the socialists, but still in Hollande’s camp, are the leftist parties and the Greens who express a deep hostility towards Israel and are at the forefront of every anti-Israel demonstration, declaration and petition. The fact that Jean Luc Melenchon, the charismatic leader of the renewed Communist party, only managed a disappointing 11% result, might well reduce its impact on French foreign policy, but I expect a surge in leftist and Communist manifestations of anti-Zionism.”

In the aftermath of the election, Prasquier sought to mend bridges with the new President.

JointMedia News Service’s Alina Dain Sharon has also written about the effect of Hollande’s victory on French Jewry.

 

In Israel, there certainly seemed to be considerable preference for Sarkozy over Hollande. Eighty-one percent of French expatriates in Israel voted for him in the first round.

That number increased to 92.8 percent in the second round of voting.

On Monday, Ha’aretz’ Barak Ravid weighed the impact of Hollande’s victory on Israel.

Hollande, Ravid noted, was an unknown to Israel.

The incoming French president, Francois Hollande, is not only a mystery to Israel’s public, but also to its politicians. Hollande has never visited Israel and, in general, never meddled with foreign affairs during his political career. Throughout his presidential campaign, Hollande never criticized Israel and overall presented a balanced stance, while his goal was to avoid upsetting anyone.

While nobody expects Hollande to be as strong on Iran as Sarkozy, Ravid said that Israel is not expecting radical changes to French policies either.

Jerusalem does not currently expect a dramatic change in French policies toward Iran or the Palestinian issue. If any change does come, it will be in the style and personality of the French president, and not in his essence. “It will be harder to be even more against the settlements and for a Palestinian state than Sarkozy was,” said a Foreign Ministry official. “And like the French saying goes, everything changes, yet everything remains the same.”

Ravid’s colleague at Ha’aretz, columnist Sefy Hendler sees the new France as more likely to openly oppose the policies of the Netanyahu Government, as well as accept a compromise with Iran.

In terms of the most significant issue on the international agenda, Iran’s nuclear reactor, it is safe to assume that in the meantime, the current state of intransigence will continue. At the same time, if the Iranians propose a partial agreement to Western powers in the upcoming nuclear talks, it will be interesting to see if France will continue to hold a hard- right position on the demand that the Islamic Republic cease enriching uranium.

Ahron Shapiro

 

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