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A VOTE FOR A CHANGE
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
May 2, 2007

On May 6, France goes to poll to elect a new president amid a wide-ranging debate about the nation's identity and its place in the world.

The first round of the presidential election, held two weeks ago, produced three major results.

First, it showed that French democracy is alive and vibrant. More than 85 per cent of those eligible to vote did so, establishing a record turnout for any of the major democracies over the past four decades.

Secondly, the election propelled a new generation of politicians into the limelight. This is the first time since 1974 that neither of two candidates reaching the second round has stood for the presidency before. In other words, the age of the political dinosaurs is over.

Finally, the first round of the election dealt a serious blow to the extreme right. The National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen lost almost six percentage points compared to his last bid for the president five years ago.

What the election did not change was France's division into two major camps of right and left. The right consolidates its gains over the past decade or so by winning almost 44 per cent of the votes divided among four candidates. Its main standard-bearer, Nicholas Sarkozy, the former interior minister, collected 31 per cent f the votes, the highest score that any candidate had reached since the 1960s. The left ended up with 38 per cent, its lowest score in years. Its standard-bearer Segolene Royal, the first woman to reach the second round of the presidential election, picked up 31 per cent of the votes, the highest score for any Socialist candidate in more than two decades. The remaining 18 per cent went to the centrist candidate, Francis Bayrou.

Remarkable feature

A remarkable feature of the election was the emergence of an anti-globalisation current that spans both left and right. Nevertheless, foreign policy played only a minor role in the presidential campaign. Almost all candidates expressed their pride and joy in the fact that France had stayed out of the Iraq war which some 80 per cent of the French regard as an unmitigated disaster. Both finishing candidates have hinted that they also want France to conclude its military presence in Afghanistan.

So, does that mean that France is heading for a new phase of isolationism as far as global affairs are concerned?

It is too early to tell.

Depending on who wins on Sunday, France is likely to develop a new foreign policy with at least three features.

Both Sarkozy and Royal have hinted that will not follow Jacques Chirac the present president in his almost obsessive insistence that France should help revive the proposed European Union constitution, voted down by French voters two years ago. Instead, they will seek a new treaty that could be debated and ratified by the parliament, rather than submitted to a new and dicey referendum.

Both Sarkozy and Royal are also likely to tone down Chirac's almost provocative anti-American style. Sarkozy has gone out of his way to underline Franco-American amity and cooperation, risking the label of "Washington's man" from his political enemies. Royal, for her part, inherits the Atlanticist heritage of her party, which means a return to the warm relations that Paris enjoyed with Washington during Francois Mitterrand's Socialist presidency.

A Sarkozy victory would consolidate the position of centre right parties in Europe.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, both Sarkozy and Royal have adopted very strong positions on the issue of Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions. At one point in the campaign, Royal even suggested that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear energy industry. Both candidates have endorsed the recently imposed sanctions against the Islamic republic and indicated their willingness to support further punitive measures through the UN.

As far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned, both candidates have a record of supporting a peaceful solution that would guarantee the security of the Jewish state alongside the interests of the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza. Both have distanced themselves from Chirac's rather showy but ultimately meaningless pro-Arab stance.

Consensus

There is also consensus on another issue. Both candidates oppose Turkey's entry into the European Union. In fact, it now looks unlikely that Turkey would become an EU member within the next two decades. Sarkozy is tougher in his opposition to Turkey's entry into the EU, hinting that he would accept nothing more than a special association relationship.

Royal, on the other hand, maybe more welcoming to Turkey, if and when, her working class base sheds its fear of massive Turkish immigration to France and other EU countries.

The main message of Sunday's election is that France is getting ready to make a comeback as a major player in the international arena. Chirac's erratic foreign policy, dictated more by impulse than reason, will come to an end, allowing France to end the role of "naysayer" that she has played since the 1990s. And that, certainly, is good news.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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