When the frontrunners in France’s presidential race took their seats on Thursday evening for a final televised debate, they did so with battle lines firmly entrenched.
Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande had spent the previous month on a vitriolic campaign trail exposing deep rifts among the French electorate over the economy, immigration, and nuclear energy.
But the most significant player in Sunday’s election, which most opinion polls predict will go down to the wire, was not even in the studio.
Both Hollande and Sarkozy are mindful that the 6.4 million who voted for Marine Le Pen of the far right National front will have a large bearing on the outcome of Sunday’s run-off. That’s why they have sought to echo Le Pen’s strident anti-immigration rhetoric which reached out to disenchanted voters and hardliners alike.
Hollande vowed to cut economic migration at a time when France is feeling the pinch from the eurozone’s financial turmoil. Sarkozy went one step further, referencing Le Pen by name and claiming only he had the experience and gumption to put a meaningful cap on immigration’s pall over France by cutting the number of people entering the country in half.
Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, said although immigration was being touted as a domestic stand from both candidates, using the issue as a sweetener to attract far-right voters could have an adverse effect on France internationally.
“Immigration is foreign policy and when they speak about immigration now in France it’s fortress Europe,” she said. “[Hollande and Sarkozy] don’t see immigration in a positive sense and it sends completely the wrong signal to the younger generation and the emerging business community in the Middle East.”
It was not until the final minutes of Thursday’s debate that the issue of foreign policy was raised. Here, both candidates demurred.
Sarkozy was quick to point out how he took the lead as France led the way in a number of international decisions while in office.
France’s president has often sought to paint himself as a highly experienced operator in the realm of global diplomacy. As well as inheriting French involvement in NATO’s Afghanistan mission, Sarkozy oversaw the stationing of French troops in the Middle East and Africa, largely in a peacekeeping capacity.
He played a prominent role in meditation between Tbilisi and Moscow in 2008 when the fight over Abkhazia and South Ossetia threatened to boil over into all out war.
And last year, Sarkozy’s France spearheaded NATO’s campaign for military intervention in Libya.
Sarkozy avoided mentioning Libya in Thursday’s debate after embarrassing allegations that his 2007 presidential campaign had received an offer of funding from Tripoli. Sarkozy is seeking legal action over the claim, but thought better of opening that particular can of worms in the closing moments of a potentially election-changing televised appearance.
Hollande’s public statements indicate striking Middle Eastern policy similarities to the current government. Like Sarkozy, Hollande has declared that an Iranian nuclear missile would be unacceptable for Europe. Like Sarkozy, Hollande has called for a two-state solution in Palestine while trumpeting Israeli security as a key French concern.
The Socialist leader has been necessarily vague over French foreign policy. He currently lacks a dedicated adviser for overseas affairs. Instead of laying out detailed plans for France’s global relations, the Socialist challenger has made a point of criticizing Sarkozy in this regard.
Looking ahead to the next term in office, Hollande has struck a remarkably similar tone to the current government.
Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe have been among the most hawkish European officials to address the Syrian crisis, closing the French Embassy in Damascus and calling multiple times for President Bashar Assad to leave office. Sarkozy has issued incessant calls for a full ceasefire in Syria, and has somewhat ominously compared the restive city of Homs to Benghazi, Libya’s erstwhile rebel stronghold.
Hollande, for his part, declared last month that he would support military intervention in Syria, “if done within a [United Nations] framework.” Juppe has offered words to the same effect in recent weeks.
According to Thomas Klau, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, both Sarkozy and Hollande will wait and see what happens in Syria before veering from the French course of public criticism of the Damascus government.
“The current government and Juppe have been very active on the Syria dossier and doing all they could to get Russia to move its stance,” Klau told Al-Akhbar. “I wouldn’t expect the French policy to be different under Hollande. Much of his policy will be determined by events on the ground and the success – or the lack of it – from the [U.N./Arab League Envoy Kofi] Annan’s mediation effort.”
Dempsey added that Hollande had raised the prospect of military intervention in Syria “because he can say it without the responsibility” of having to go through with it. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, France still has some global clout, but not nearly enough to convince Russia or China to bless any advance on Syria. Both candidates know and accept this, and continuity in the French approach to Damascus is more likely than meaningful change.
In a similar way, with Paris’ pro-Israel lobby as influential among the Socialists as they are in Sarkozy’s UMP party, Hollande, should he win, is unlikely to depart from France’s current line on Palestine.
In spite of a few diplomatic gaffes, including branding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar,” Sarkozy has spent much of the last five years offering support to Israeli officials. Hollande, with influential pro-Israeli figures such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn having the ear of many Parisian socialists, will have a hard time departing from such engagement.
“Nicolas Sarkozy was personally convinced that the national interest of Israel was very close to French national interest,” Klau said. “With Francois Hollande, his attitude isn’t very significant. Neither of them place themselves in the Arabist tradition of French foreign policy, which has lost relevance anyway.”
So if foreign policy has provided so few soundbites in the French presidential election, it is because both candidates are largely in assent.
That is not to say Sarkozy and Hollande agree on every foreign policy area.
Hollande used Thursday’s debate to repeat a campaign promise that, if elected, he would withdraw all French troops serving with NATO from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 – a full year ahead of a planned pullout, and much to the chagrin of Sarkozy. The French president has said he’d prefer not to renege on the current withdrawal timetable agreed with NATO.
In recent months, Sarkozy has faced the wrath of Turkey, one of France’s major trading partners, by pursuing legislation that would make it illegal to deny the Armenian Genocide. Amid opprobrium from Ankara, the president has pushed ahead with the controversial bill, which critics have denounced as a cynical attempt to get France’s estimated 400,000 ethnic Armenians on his side ahead of elections.
Sarkozy has made no secret of his objection to Turkey applying for EU membership, and fallout over the genocide bill is just the latest of a series of spats with Ankara during his time in office. Hollande also indicated he would oppose Turkish EU accession if elected, but, significantly for officials in Ankara, he has not ruled out future negotiations.
“Sarkozy is openly hostile to the notion that Turkey should join the EU, whereas the Socialist position is that that door should remain open,” said Klau.
France’s poor diplomatic ties with Ankara can be counted as a black mark against Sarkozy’s foreign policy initiatives, something Hollande should seek to take advantage of, according to Dempsey.
“Sarkozy had something near contempt for Turkey and there is no love lost between Ankara and Paris,” she said. “This would change slowly under Hollande. It’s time France considered [engagement with Turkey] as its long-term strategic interest but that is one thing that Hollande might be able to change if he wins.”
With France mired in discontent over domestic issues, it is no surprise that neither Hollande nor Sarkozy has been overly willing to share their opinions on global affairs.
But whoever inherits control of one of NATO’s largest troop contributing countries will need to keep plans in place.
- ‘On a razor’s edge’: Sarkozy lags on eve of elections (rt.com)
- Marine Le Pen Won’t Back Sarkozy or Hollande for French President (theepochtimes.com)
Details emerging about Mohamed Merah, the alleged gunman in a series of murders in the Toulouse area from March 11 to March 19, raise serious questions about the conduct of French intelligence and police agencies.
Merah allegedly killed one paratrooper in Toulouse on March 11, two paratroopers in nearby Montauban on March 15, and a father and several children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19. He was killed in an armed standoff with police at his Toulouse apartment Thursday, shot in the head by a sniper as he fell from his balcony.
Officials are scrambling to explain how Merah—though known to both French intelligence (DCRI, Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence) and to police—operated undetected for over a week, and why he was killed in the operation.
Speaking to Europe1 radio Thursday, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé admitted: “I understand why one would ask if there was an error or not. As I do not know whether there was an error, I cannot tell you what type of error, but we must shed light on this.”
Christian Prouteau, the founder of the GIGN (Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie), a counterterrorism squad that rivals the elite police unit that killed Merah, criticized the assault yesterday. He said he was surprised that the standoff ended in Merah’s death: “How is it that the best police unit cannot arrest a lone man? They could have hit him with tear gas. Instead they threw armfuls of grenades at him. The result was that the criminal was put in a psychological state to continue his ‘war.’”
He added: “It may appear presumptuous, but in 64 GIGN operations under my command, there was not a single fatality.” Echoing comments by local Toulouse police, Prouteau asked why police did not simply wait in ambush outside Merah’s apartment and detain him as he left; this technique is apparently used often against Basque nationalists and mafia operatives.
These questions arose as incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to exploit the tragedy to push for wide-ranging police state powers, and to burnish his law-and-order credentials for next month’s presidential elections.
A recent CSA poll taken after the shootings showed Sarkozy increasing his vote, winning 30 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections versus 28 percent for Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande. Hollande is still expected to win the second round of the elections, however, due to Sarkozy’s unpopularity outside the UMP’s voter base.
In a televised speech Thursday, Sarkozy called for “criminal punishment” of anyone reading internet sites that promote “terrorism” or “hatred,” traveling abroad for “indoctrination,” defending “extremist ideologies,” or promoting them inside prisons. Such proposals, couched in such broad terms as to allow the state to criminalize virtually any oppositional politics, trample basic constitutional rights of free speech and travel.
Magistrates Union official Marie-Blanche Régnier said Sarkozy’s call was a “political maneuver.” She rhetorically asked whether he would include Marine Le Pen, the neo-fascist candidate whose voters Sarkozy has aggressively wooed with anti-immigrant rhetoric, on the list of “extremists.”
Under conditions in which the PS, the Communist Party (PCF), and the New Anti-capitalist Party are not challenging Sarkozy’s calls for “national unity,” most objections to the investigations have come from police and security specialists. However, the details that have surfaced already make clear that, if Merah was indeed the killer, he was able to carry out the murders only due to a remarkable breakdown of French police and intelligence operations.
Given the immense political stakes in Sarkozy’s exploitation of the shootings, it is only logical to ask whether there is any connection between this breakdown of intelligence and Sarkozy’s attempt to save his chances in the upcoming elections.
Shortly after the March 15 Montauban killings, officials were already saying they were exploring “all possible suspects” in the murders. According to the daily Libération, when on March 19 Toulouse police provided investigators with a list of Islamist “radicals” in the Toulouse area, it had only six names on it, and Merah’s was at the top of the list. Merah was therefore well known to police.
After the Montauban killings, however, Merah was apparently not identified—even though his mother’s IP address was on a police list of computers that had been in contact with the March 11 victim. This list was examined carefully by investigators, and it eventually played a role in Merah’s capture. However, investigators apparently did not cross-check this list with the list of Islamists until Monday the 19, after the killings at the Ozar Hatoreh school.
Defense expert François Heisbourg told Libération, “There are only a few dozen Frenchmen who have traveled to Afghanistan, and only a few units in the Midi-Pyrénées region [around Toulouse]. One wonders why no one paid more attention to him! One can perhaps understand this before the Toulouse and Montauban killings—it’s surprising, but not shocking. But afterwards? This means that either the agencies involved are completely out of cash, or they are not doing their job.”
He added, “I am puzzled when I hear the Paris and Toulouse prosecutors explain that they did not have the suspect’s address. It seems the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DCRI) interrogated him in the autumn and concluded he was not dangerous. How did they contact him if they did not have his address?”
Heisbourg also raised questions about Merah’s training as a gunman, apparently acquired during a couple of trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, though he spent most of his time working as a mechanic: “This ‘lone wolf’ acted in ways the most experienced mafiosi do not dare attempt. He ran his operation himself, and carried out the killings with an unprecedented degree of cold calculation and absence of hysteria. Even the September 11 terrorists were more unnerved. He has therefore received absolutely first-rate training. Who trained him and how?”
Indeed, some questions remain as to whether Merah in fact was the killer. He did not resemble the description given by witnesses at the Montauban shooting, who spoke of a corpulent figure with tattoos and a scar on the left cheek. By contrast, Merah was thin and had no facial markings.
In the wake of a horrific rampage, in which Mohamed Merah (now dead after a 32-hour standoff with police) reportedly murdered three French soldiers, three young Jewish schoolchildren, and a rabbi, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has begun calling for criminal penalties for citizens who visit web sites that advocate for terror or hate. “From now on, any person who habitually consults Web sites that advocate terrorism or that call for hatred and violence will be criminally punished,” Sarkozy was reported as saying.
Apart from the obvious flaws in Sarkozy’s plan–users, can, of course, use anonymizing tools to view the material or simply access it from a variety of locations to avoid appearing as “habitual” viewers–there are numerous other reasons to be concerned about criminalizing access to information.
First, there’s no guarantee that criminalizing access to hate speech or terrorist content will end the very real problems of hate crime and terrorism. Extremist violence didn’t start with the Internet and it won’t end with it, either.
Second, who defines “hate speech”? In France, that definition includes Holocaust denial, which in the past resulted in Yahoo! discontinuing auctions of Nazi memoribilia (the collectors of which are not, by any stretch, all sympathizers). And negative comments about France’s Muslim community have also resulted in criminal penalties, most notably in the case of actress Brigitte Bardot, who has been convicted five times for “inciting racial hatred.” While Holocaust denial and comments about Muslims such as those made by Bardot may be deplorable, they should not be criminal.
Finally, while Sarkozy is not–yet–calling for websites to be blocked, it wouldn’t be a stretch; after all, France already offers mechanisms for blocking child pornography and “incitement to terrorism and racial hatred.” If Sarkozy were to decide censorship is the answer, one major risk would be overblocking: there’s nary a country in the world that censors the Internet without collateral damage (in Australia, for example, testing on a would-be censorship regime found the site of a dentist blocked, among others).
EFF has serious concerns about the implications of Sarkozy’s comments. When a democratic country such as France decides to censor or criminalize speech, it is not just the French that suffer, but the world, as authoritarian regimes are given easy justification for their own censorship. We urge French authorities to judge crime on action, not expression.