Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner set the cat among the pigeons by announcing that the Western democracies had to prepare for war to stop the Islamic Republic in Tehran from developing a nuclear arsenal.
To be sure, Kouchner, always a man of peace, did not present war as the only option. In fact, he went out of his way to insist that every effort should be made to resolve the crisis through peaceful means. What was refreshing in Kouchner's comment was the fact that he was ready to draw a line in the sand, something that most of his Western colleagues have refused to do.
In doing so, Kouchner was, in fact, acting in accordance with his boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy's culture of "franc-parler" ( plain speaking).
One of the promises that Nicolas Sarkozy made during the French presidential election campaign last spring was that, were he to win, he would "tell it as it is." It was, therefore, no surprise that, commenting on the Iranian nuclear crisis last month, President Sarkozy minced no words.
Steering clear of diplomatic double-talk, he told the world that the choice was either to let the Islamic Republic develop a nuclear bomb or bomb it before it can do so.
Thus, what Kouchner said this week was based on considered French policy rather than his well-known sentiments towards the Khomeinist system in Iran.
Are we witnessing a major shift in the way French foreign policy is developed and executed?
The answer must be yes. To start with there are signs that the influence of the foreign policy establishment, centred on the Quai d'Orsay, the headquarters of the foreign ministry on the left bank of the river Seine in Paris, is on the decline. Since the late 1950s that establishment has developed a policy culture based on two fundamental assumptions.
The first is that France could exist as a major power with some global influence only in opposition to the United States. " If we always say yes to the Americans why should anyone come to us rather than go directly to the Americans? " quipped Michel Jobert, who briefly served as Foreign Minister in the late 1960s.
The second assumption was that only by developing its " Mediterranean dimension" would France be able to counter-balance the immense power of Germany in Europe. In practice, that meant cuddling the despots in Africa and the Middle East.
Those assumptions led French foreign policy into a cul-de-sac. Rather than considering each issue on the basis of French national interests, the Quai d'Ordsay was on a constant lookout for ways of saying boo to the Americans and pleasing Third World despots. In a sense, France ceased to have a proper foreign policy. Even its membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organsiation (NATO) and its involvement in building the European Union were the result of early American initiatives in the Cold War.
The French foreign policy establishment assumed that France could always seek the " beau-role" ( the beautiful part) by taking the side of the weak against the strong even when the former were in the wrong and the latter in the right. At the same time France could always be sure that if one of the weak tried to do really big mischief, the Americans would deal with him.
Despite its quest for the " beau-role", France was not spared the unpleasant consequences of belonging to the family of Western democracies. Although it cuddled the terrorists, it suffered more than its share of terror attacks.
The decision to withdraw from NATO's military section did not persuade the Soviet bloc to stop its support for the Algerian war, a conflict that had started as a means of pinning down the French army, NATO' s largest in Europe, in the context of the Cold War. By 1961 France found itself faced with a situation in which both the Soviet Union and the United States, under President John Kennedy, supported the Algerian rebels. The former did so because they wanted to weaken the West as a whole. The latter did so because they saw no benefit in backing an ally that made a point of opposing them at every opportunity.
The full bankruptcy of posture presented as policy was exposed in 2002 as the international community debated the fate of Saddam Hussein. President Jacques Chirac ended up throwing France's full weight behind efforts to keep the dictator in power in Baghdad. The assumption was that if Saddam Hussein did survive he would regard France as a privileged partner and help it play a key role in reshaping the Middle East.
The gamble failed. But even if Saddam Hussein had survived it is almost certain that he would have sought a deal with the Americans rather than the French. After all, almost all the despots whom the French pampered and armed ended up being seduced by the perfidious " Anglo-Saxons."
It is, of course, too early to suggest that France is discarding more than half a century of anti-Americanism as a step towards developing a serious foreign policy. The power of the establishment must not be underestimated. Anti-Americanism has deep historic roots among the French elite, if only as the last refuge of every scoundrel of the left or the right.
Neither Sarkozy nor Kouchner have made pubic statements regarding the elements of a new French foreign policy. But the way they have acted so far indicates that at least three elements are involved.
The first is the setting aside of the "American factor" in the initial stages of any analysis. Gone are the days that the French, when asked what they thought on any issue, would respond by asking : What do the Americans think? An analysis that does not start with an account of American policy would permit the French to examine each issue on its merits and from the point of view of French national interests and aspirations.
For example, rather than starting by asking what does Washington think about a nuclear-armed Khomeinist republic, the French now ask what would a nuclear-armed Khomeinist republic mean for French interests, regretless of what the Americans thought.
The second element is the belief that in international affairs, as in nature, birds of the same feather fly together. Thus France cannot be a friend of regimes that oppose its culture, its values and its very way of life. This does not mean that France should become involved in conflict with all such countries. But it does mean that France should recognsie a hierarchy of values according to which friend is distinguished from foe and treated accordingly.
Finally, the new French policy being shaped by Sarkozy and Kouchner is based on the assumption that "telling it as it is" is the only efficient means of practicing a creative diplomacy in an increasingly well-informed and critically aware globalised world.
Under its new leadership, France has a new voice; a fresh voice worth hearing.