New opinion polls give conservative Nicolas Sarkozy between 52 and 54 percent of the vote, against 46 and 48 percent for socialist candidate Segolene Royal, in France's May 6 presidential runoff. Sarkozy's election would be good news for French-American relations. If the pro-American Sarkozy defeats the reflexively anti-American Royal, the transatlantic relationship will become healthier than it has been for some time.
During outgoing President Jacques Chirac's tenure, transatlantic relations have been the worst in decades. The low point came amid France's boisterous opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It spoke volumes that Sarkozy was the only French presidential candidate to visit the United States. On a highly publicized trip to Washington, he was photographed with President Bush. He also gave a strongly pro-American speech. Sarkozy told his audience that, "Friendship is respect, understanding, affection but not submission ... I ask our American friends to let us be free, free to be their friends."
In response, former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius proclaimed that Sarkozy was seeking to replace British Prime Minister Tony Blair as Bush's "poodle." A Royal aide labeled Sarkozy "an American neoconservative with a French passport," a criticism that stuck to him for the campaign's duration.
The transatlantic link is an extremely sensitive issue in French politics, especially for conservative candidates. The French are highly skeptical of the Bush administration, thanks largely to the unpopular Iraq war. Pre-election polls found that three-quarters of French voters believe that France should distance itself from the United States.
Hence, Sarkozy gradually toned down his pro-American rhetoric during the campaign. For example, he wrote an article for the leading newspaper, Le Monde, which condemned Saddam Hussein's execution. He followed this up by reaffirming his opposition to the Iraq war.
The French constitution empowers the president with a near monopoly over foreign policy. If he is elected, what will Sarkozy do with this power?
An international relations realist, Sarkozy will advance a pragmatic foreign policy. He will aim for a transatlantic role somewhere between what many French perceive to be Chirac's sterile arrogance and Blair's servile obedience.
Sarkozy's foreign policy adviser is Pierre Lelouche, an experienced politician with strong American ties. Sarkozy may appoint him to a new post of national security adviser. Lelouche is unlikely to tolerate either anti-American rhetoric or calls for a new Europe to act as an economic and diplomatic counterweight to the United States. Lelouche is regularly referred to in the European press as the "pro-American" member of the French senate -- the ultimate insult for a French pol."
Sarkozy has warned that withdrawing American troops too soon from Iraq would "lead to chaos," while avoiding withdrawal would lead the Iraqis to "react with more violence." According to Sarkozy, "The idea of an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable." He opposes military action but favors stronger sanctions against Iran.
In contrast to France's Arabist foreign policy establishment, Sarkozy is strongly pro-Israeli, although he did criticize Israel's disproportionate response to Hezbollah last summer and suggested that not all of Israel's demands regarding settlement of the Palestinian issue should be met.
Traditional French skepticism of American foreign policy has meant a continuing effort to place distance between the Elysée Palace and the White House. Despite this well-documented history, Sarkozy may not need to straddle as wide a divide as commonly believed.
Too often, French criticism is equated with anti-Americanism. Yet, for most French voters the problem is particular aspects of American foreign policy, not American society.
For domestic political reasons, French presidents prefer to be seen resisting American pressure before striking a compromise that serves both French and American interests. Consider that, with the exception of the war in Iraq, France has been an ally of the United States in every recent military intervention, from the Persian Gulf War to Afghanistan.
After 9/11, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy agreed to an 11-step plan with then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to improve French-American collaboration. Today, American counterterrorism officials privately note the invaluable assistance that French intelligence has provided in foiling al Qaeda plots.
If Sarkozy is elected president, French-U.S. relations will improve for two other reasons. First, the Bush administration has belatedly concluded that a very public transatlantic dispute has damaged American interests. The White House is now committed to playing nicely with Chirac's successor.
Second, there will be a new American president within 21 months. Circumstance will force the next president, Republican or Democrat, to present a more pragmatic American face to the world.
The White House's next inhabitant will occupy an office diminished in stature by his or her predecessor's diplomatic failures. President Sarkozy will quietly offer to help his ally pick up the pieces.