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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Stand by for more activist French policy
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

French President Nicolas Sarcozy
More mid-Atlantic: President Sarkozy

In his first foreign policy speech, French President Nicolas Sarkozy adopted a more "mid-Atlantic" stance than his predecessor Jacques Chirac, less hostile to the United States and globalisation and more critical of Russia and China.

And characteristically, he put his finger on the greatest potential crisis on the diplomatic agenda - the future of Iran's nuclear programme.

In his speech to French ambassadors gathered from around the world, he said that diplomacy was the only way to avoid a "catastrophic" choice - "the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran".

Iran might in due course provide a major test for both Mr Sarkozy and the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

At the moment, talks with Iran about its enrichment of uranium are deadlocked. If that continues, it is possible that the Bush administration will tire of diplomacy and turn to military action. France and Britain would have to decide whether to support this.

'Clear horizon'

In his comments about the United States, President Sarkozy chose a less rocky path than Mr Chirac, who spoke openly of opposing the creation of a "unipolar" (read American-led) world. Mr Sarkozy declared that Franco-American friendship was as important today as it had ever been, but being allies, he added carefully, did not mean being aligned.

He also reminded the world that France had opposed the invasion of Iraq and called for a "clear horizon" for the withdrawal of foreign troops. He held out an olive branch to Washington by suggesting that France might help reconcile Iraqi political factions.

France will keep other European Union member states on their toes

And he said that France would do more in the training of local troops in Afghanistan. But it will not, it appears, join the major combat that is undertaken by the US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

He also acknowledged the predominant American theme by stating that the number one world "challenge" was how to avoid a "confrontation between Islam and the West". Groups like al-Qaeda, he said, wanted the restoration of a caliphate rejecting all modernity and diversity.

And he aligned himself with critics of Russia with his description of Russian "brutality" in deploying its assets of oil and gas as it returned to the world scene.

He also called on China to address the weakness of its currency, which makes its exports so cheap.

Defence co-operation

As for the European Union, he made reference to the need for Europe to "progressively affirm itself as a first-rank player for peace and security in the world".

However, it was not clear from this speech how this is to be achieved, though greater defence co-operation was one route he recommended.

The fact is that the proposed new EU treaty allows for each member state to carry out its own foreign policy, and while it encourages a collective approach, this becomes possible only by a unanimous vote on each issue.

One such issue is Turkish membership of the EU, which Mr Sarkozy opposes, though he did soften his approach somewhat by agreeing to allow negotiations with Turkey to continue.

Overall, the president signalled an activist French foreign policy on his watch. His appointment of Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres, as foreign minister had indicated that, even before this speech. France will keep other EU member states on their toes.

Mr Sarkozy has already darted onto the international scene with his intervention to help get the Bulgarian nurses released from Libya. More such interventions can be expected. Europe, stand by.


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