In just a few weeks the French will elect their next president, and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is facing stiff competition from Socialist François Hollande. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, it is unlikely that France has any major foreign policy changes on the horizon. Still, as the country struggles to remain internationally relevant in the face of the changing global constellation of forces, the French leadership should think about becoming more Europe-minded.

Of the three “alpha animals” in the EU’s menagerie, France has always held the central position. The United Kingdom has long been an Atlantic outlier, superbly professional in its diplomacy, but ambivalent about the EU and at times semidetached. Germany, of the three clearly the most open to a genuinely common EU foreign policy, has been quite reluctant to take the lead on this front. It was thus often left to France to define the scope and the ambition of EU foreign policy.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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The underlying philosophy of French engagement in this area is a belief in the primacy of national foreign policy as a core element of state sovereignty. France considers the EU’s external relations as complementary to member states’ foreign policies. In other words, France will support the development of the EU’s foreign policy only to the extent that it does not limit France’s own ability to take the political lead at the European level. This logic explains France’s “elitist” preference for working primarily in consultation with the EU’s more influential member states, as well as its hostility toward majority voting and a stronger role for the European Commission.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s five years as French president have shown both the potential and the limitations of this approach. At its best, creative and determined leadership from Paris combined with the collective weight of the EU to produce remarkable results. Sarkozy’s successful mediation efforts as president of the European Council in the Georgia war of 2008 certainly constituted a high point for EU foreign policy. The French-led efforts in Ivory Coast in 2011 to loosen Laurent Gbagbo’s grip on power and secure the elected president Alassane Ouattara’s position were another case in point. On the other extreme, Sarkozy’s rather improvised initiative for the Union for the Mediterranean ended up as a collective embarrassment for the EU following the Arab Awakening.

If Sarkozy is reelected he is likely to continue to consider the EU primarily as a useful toolbox and a force multiplier for France’s and his own foreign policy. One can expect more high-profile initiatives, which sometimes will help the EU overcome its bureaucratic inertia and produce good outcomes, but at other times are likely to result in dead ends. Ultimately, highly personalized, impulsive leadership from one member state is hard to reconcile with the workings of a complex multilateral organization.

Meanwhile, if elected, François Hollande would take office with hardly any foreign policy experience and no clear profile, though that has been the case with a number of other new occupants of the Elysee Palace. Hollande will be able to rely on the advice of several Socialist politicians experienced in the field, such as Laurent Fabius, Pierre Moscovici, and Hubert Vedrine. With his analytical mind, he should master the subject matter rapidly.

Hollande’s pronouncements during the campaign mostly signal a rebalancing of French policy in areas where Sarkozy is perceived to have gone beyond the traditional French mainstream. Whereas Sarkozy, particularly in his first years in office, has embraced a distinctly Atlanticist orientation (promoting NATO integration and engagement in Afghanistan), Hollande speaks of a renewed impetus to forge a common European defense policy and pull French troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule. While Sarkozy has strongly supported Israel and opposed Turkey’s EU ambitions, Hollande advocates a more balanced approach toward Israel and the Palestinians and a more open attitude toward Turkey. There are also stronger commitments to global governance and to development cooperation as one would expect from a politician on the left.

In spite of some differences of emphasis, it is unlikely that Hollande would depart in major ways from Sarkozy’s policy line. The contrast would probably be greater in temper and style than in substance. Quite likely, Hollande would at least initially adopt a lower profile than his predecessor and work in a more collegial and consensual manner, which would be welcomed by his counterparts in the smaller European states.

The central strategic challenge any future French president would face, whether Sarkozy or Hollande, is how to reconcile France’s ambitions to remain a global actor with the country’s limited resources and its diminishing weight on the international scene. France’s traditional assets—such as a highly professional diplomatic service, a relatively effective military, privileged relations with its former colonies, and the “Francophonie” network—are increasingly more constrained. The country will find its resources insufficient to secure the international profile it has been used to in the past.

In an increasingly multipolar world in which Asia is moving to the fore, France might find that if it wishes to continue to play an important international role it will have to rely more and more on its participation in the EU. True, permanent membership in the UN Security Council will remain an important asset, but the body’s current composition will lose legitimacy in the face of a shifting global constellation of forces. And in the EU too France now finds a more challenging playing field. It is far from clear whether a significantly strengthened Germany will still abide by the long-standing bargain, according to which greater German weight in economic matters is compensated by French leadership on political and security issues. And an organization of 28 member states is more difficult to steer informally from Paris than the smaller EU of the past.

As EU foreign policy is thus unlikely to become more “French” in the future, French foreign policy might have to become more “European,” moving beyond its traditional intergovernmental approach. If France were to join with those countries that support a real strengthening of the EU’s collective foreign policy capacity, it would greatly enhance the EU’s chances of becoming a credible international actor.