PARIS -- American elections do not usually turn on the question of how the candidates for president propose to relate to foreign countries.But elections in other countries often feature debates about how potential presidents or prime ministers might relate to the U.S.
That is certainly the case in France where the two contenders in today's presidential contest have taken distinctly different stances with regard to whether France should maintain or alter what are now relatively strained relations with the U.S.
The issue is not anti-Americanism versus pro-Americanism, as the sillier U.S. commentators might suggest. France actually has reasonably good relations with the U.S., which is generally an ally of the European state. U.S. and French troops have fought side-by-side in Afghanistan and shared intelligence in the war on terror. They have reasonably solid trade relations and deep cultural ties going back to the days when the French were essential backers of the American revolution..
Rather, the issue is whether France should maintain an explicit policy of setting her own agenda when it comes to international affairs or follow the lead of Tony Blair's Britain and establish a policy of generally deferring to Washington -- even when the leaders there may be less than competent. Far from being offended by froeign leaders who seek to keep their distance from the U.S. and its presidents, Americans should recognize the value of having international allies who are willing to speak bluntly about what they think to be mistaken policies of a U.S, president.
The Socialist Party candidate, Segolene Royal, has made French independence in international affairs an central focus of her campaign. At a rally in Toulouse, before 17,OOO cheering supporters, she declared, "We will not genuflect before George W. Bush. In Europe, we will defend the emergence of a multi-polar world, safe from the imperial temptations of another age."
There have been no such statements from the conservative front runner in the race, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy is no Blair-like puppet. He allows as how "the messianic side of Americans can be tiresome."
But the conservative has distanced himself from retiring President Jacques Chirac's policy of distancing the French from the Bush administration. Sarkozy, who served with Chirac and has the outgoing president's endorsement, says he shares the current president's opposition to the war in Iraq. But he also talks about wanting to "rebuild the transatlantic relationship" with the U.S., and protests that "profound, sincere and unfailing" French relations with the U.S. do not amount to submission.
Royal is not so sure.
Referring to a trip to Washington on which Sarkozy met with Bush and requested that they be photographed together, she says, "I shall not be the one to shake George Bush's hand like nothing happened [in the sometimes bitter pre-war debate over Iraq], without a word on our tactical and strategic disagreements in fighting religious extremism and terrorism.
Specifically, Royal says, "I am not for a Europe that allies with the U.S. I have never been, and will never. apologize to President Bush for the position of France on the issue of refusing to send troops to Iraq."
Sarkozy denies making any apologies. He says that, under his leadership, France would be an independent player that would not be afraid to tell U.S. presidents when they are wrong.
But that has not stopped Royal's backers from trying to chip away at Sarkozy's popular appeal -- most of which appears to be rooted in the appeal of his tough approach to domestic issues such as crime and immigration -- by referring to him as "an American neo-conservative with a French passport." and producing a 9O-page review of Sarkozy's links with U.S. right wingers that refers to the conservative candidate as a "French unit of Bush & Company."
Linking Sarkozy to Bush is smart politics for Royal and her backers, According to a recent poll for the Paris newspaper Le Monde, the American president has a six percent approval rating in France.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism.
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