Friday, January 26, 2007

Kenneth R. Timmerman: France's Pro-American Turn

St. Tropez
January 26, 2007

(St. Tropez, France) – Not only in America did a presidential election cycle kick off this past week, but also in our alter-ego, France.

There were no grand debates about war and peace, however. No questions raised about this candidate trying to disguise his Muslim upbringing by joining a mainstream Christian church. No huge gambles over the fate of the free world.

This is France, after all. So the biggest “news” of the presidential campaign – just three months from the first round! – was the grammatical error Socialist Segolene Royal made during a trip to China. Or again, an offhand comment she made in Paris this week in support of a visiting separatist leader from Quebec.

France has become a profoundly frivolous nation, dedicated to pleasure, and that suits many French men and women very well.

In St. Tropez this week, the movie stars and the sun-bathers have gone home. Now as the mistral whips the port into a chilly froth, the local clothing boutiques are well into their annual half-price sale, and nearly everyone one of them is staffed by wannabe teenage beauty queens or by ever-tanned women in the 50s who can still wear skin-tight jeans and boots and look stunning..

Disco Volante of James Bond fame looked positively tiny parked down the quai from two 135 foot Mangousta yachts registered in Nassau and the Cayman Islands (one of them called, appropriately, Don’t Touch!). How many of you have ever seen a 135 foot yacht? It’s the maritime equivalent of a ten carat diamond. – and about as expensive.

The biggest gripe among locals this week was the outrageous price of fresh truffles. Alas, they’ve quadrupled from last year and are going for 1,000 euros a kilo – that’s $650 a pound. What is the world coming to?

Nicholas Sarkozy is widely touted as the front-runner for president, and that is good news for America. He is smart, he is conservative, and he understands that the protector of French prosperity is in Washington, not Brussels.

No French president is going to increase French defense spending to the level where the French could actually deploy an army overseas any time in the near future. Unlike the other candidates, however, Sarkozy doesn’t just know this, he says it openly with realism and clarity.

He came to Washington this past autumn – none of the locals there noticed him much, but his visit was widely commented upon here in France. Sarkozy the pro-American, his enemies call him. And to his credit, he finds that title just fine.

Sarkozy began his political career three decades ago as the protégé of Jacques Chirac. At one point, he was even dating Chirac’s daughter. He fell out first with one, then the other, and became a fierce critic of Chirac’s silly (and at times, dangerous) anti-Americanism during the Iraq war.

Two years ago, Chirac was hoping to put an end to Sarkozy’s career once and for all, as allegations floated in the media that he had a secret (and illegal) overseas bank account. This perfidious deed came to light when a list of these secret accounts, held with Clearstream in Luxembourg, surfaced in the French press.

To Chirac’s surprise, Sarkozy didn’t just bow down and surrender; he fought back, filing a civil lawsuit for defamation. That turned the matter over to a French investigative magistrate, who bit by bit began interrogating witnesses under oath until – mince, alors! – he discovered that the whole business appeared to have begun in 2004 in the private office of Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, Chirac’s swashbuckling foreign minister.

Sarkozy came out the winner, and it was Villepin’s career that took a fatal tumble. Instead of rushing to battle on his white charger, a fanion with Napolean’s eagle waving in the breeze, the overwrought Prime Minister plunged to his political death at under 20% in the polls. He recently pledged fealty to Sarkozy, for the few centimes his support is still worth.

A very pleasant man named François Bayrou has also joined the presidential steeple chase, and the press is falling over themselves to push him forward. He hails from the centrist party of former president Valery Giscard d’Estaign, and is a very sensible, honorable professional politician.

But French politics can get serious, and it can get ugly. And it can have a decided negative impact on the United States, as the 2002 election showed. Faced with neo-fascist leader Jean-Marie LePen in the second round, Chirac rallied the left and won the run-off with a resounding 82% of the vote. That led him to believe – mistakenly – that he had a mandate to transform France into America’s strategic adversary and save the Middle East for French banks, oil companies and arms merchants,

The press would love Mr. François Bayrou to become the spoiler, and knock out Sarkozy in the first round so their real favorite, the Socialist Segolene Royal, will face the ageing LePen in the run-off.

That’s the scenario, folks. And unlike America’s elections, we’ll know how it plays out soon enough.

Meanwhile, the French have begun to see the downside of a weakened George W. Bush. Just last week, political commentator Bernard Guetta was reviewing the Latin American tour of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where he was squired around by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

The two of them pledged to try to convince OPEC to lower production quotas, so oil prices would return to record highs. Ah, but why didn’t America do anything about all this, Monsieur Guetta wondered. What did this mean? He knew the answer (after all, he is French).

“It means we are seeing the weakening of America,” he moaned.

When America is too strong, too self-confident, and too rich, the French worry they will become insignificant and do everything they can to hold us in check (as Chirac did in Iraq).

But when America becomes weak, the French start to fear for their own safety.

America is still the guarantor of freedom in this fallen, imperfect world of ours. And we should never forget it.

Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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