Sarkozy has always given me the impression of being rather condescending with former colonies and of running a foreign policy based almost entirely on short-term economic benefit. The French Government – as most others – has been caught completely unprepared by the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East. But Sarkozy and his ministers have been particularly inept with Tunisia and Egypt and to some extent with Morocco and Libya.
Foreign Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie was stupid enough not only to accept air travel and holidays from Ben Ali’s friends but also to actually offer French support for the Tunisian security services when the demonstrations first began. Alliot-Marie’s partner, Patrick Ollier is also accused of using his close relationship with Muammar Gaddafi to secure French arms deals with Libya. He remains in the cabinet in charge of parliamentary affairs but she has now been sacked by Sarkozy. The Prime Minister, Francois Fillon who also accepted free holidays paid for by Mubarak remains in place.
Sarkozy also found another scapegoat in Pierre Menat the Ambassador in Tunis and sacked him as well. His replacement – the brash and arrogant Boris Boillon – then went and endeared himself to the Tunisians by immediately throwing a tantrum and calling the Tunisian press “stupid” at a press briefing on his arrival. Naturally the video found its way to You Tube ( 2:40 into the video). The Tunisians demanded his removal and he was forced to apologise.
“I say I am sorry, I regret my words, I was stupid,” Ambassador Boris Boillon said over state television. “I ask for the forgiveness of all Tunisians.” Tunisians are deeply suspicious of former colonial ruler France’s role in supporting Ben Ali, who ran the North African country repressively for more than 20 years.
Sarkozy is known for not caring much for diplomats while diplomats consider him impulsive and an amateur:
Mr Sarkozy has been criticised for several years over the way his government has run foreign policy. Critics accuse him of riding roughshod over foreign service chiefs at the Quai d’Orsay while keeping key decisions in the hands of his Chief of Staff Claude Gueant.
Last week an open letter from a group of diplomats, published in the newspaper Le Monde, slammed the “amateurism” and “impulsiveness” of Mr Sarkozy’s policy. Former ambassador Jean-Christophe Rufin criticised the “damage” done to France’s image. “Contrary to the announcements trumpeted for the past three years, Europe is powerless, Africa escapes us, the Mediterranean will not talk to us, China has tamed us and Washington ignores us!” wrote the diplomats.
The letter was seen as a response to Mr Sarkozy’s claims that his ambassadors in Arab capitals had failed to foresee the North African unrest.
It is now the more sober Alain Juppe, the former French prime minister, who will be given the job of restoring France’s diplomatic credibility as the country’s new foreign minister. He will seek to ensure France takes the right approach to the pro-democracy movement.
And, significantly, Mr Sarkozy is moving Claude Gueant, his wing-man for years and the driver of his foreign policy, to be interior minister – a move seen as a concession to Alain Juppe, who will want to run foreign affairs his way.
The new Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is now moving fast to try and rectify a string of blunders and to try and restore some cohesion to French foreign policy.
Now comes a French move to win hearts and minds in the new Libya: the first consignment of humanitarian aid. The two planes France sent to the eastern city of Benghazi carried doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment to ease the pressure on hospitals in the east of Libya.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon hailed “the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of the liberated territories. And you will have seen that France was in the forefront of the decisions taken to sanction Col Gaddafi,” he said. “We were the ones who called on the European Council to adopt a joint position on this matter.”
The French moves are a start and almost forced on them since the writing is already on the wall. Whether Alain Juppe will be able to inject a measure of principle into French foreign policy and lift it up from the level of the pig-trough remains to be seen.
But with Sarkozy’s approval ratings at less than 30% and a difficult presidential election coming up in 2012, his amateurish impulsiveness and his quest for short-term gains may prevent foreign policy from being about anything else.