by David Chuter
As expected, Socialist François Hollande beat the incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the second round of the French presidential elections on 6 May. The margin was smaller than some had anticipated, but it was still decisive. What are the consequences of this victory for the European Common Security and Defence Policy? In the short term, not a lot. In the medium term, not a lot more. This is why.
It s quite true that, in the first round of the elections on 22 April, nearly a third of the electorate voted for parties of the Left and Right that made severe criticisms of Europe. This was more than voted for either of the two main candidates. But the criticisms – widely echoed across France – were almost exclusively about economic and industrial policy. They were criticisms of the neoliberal economic policies set by Brussels in general, and of the current obsession with self-defeating austerity in particular. On the irredeemable extreme Right, there is a degree of xenophobic anti-European sentiment, because, after all, other Europeans are actually foreigners. But beyond that constant of French politics, there was very little criticism of Europe as such.
In the short term, Hollande’s main priority will be to move the European economic consensus from austerity back towards growth. This has to happen anyway, if Europe is to survive in anything like its current form, but making it happen quickly enough will be a challenge, and will strain the already awkward relationship with Germany. For this reason, Hollande will not be making foreign policy waves, or taking major security policy initiatives. He knows that you can only fight a limited number of battles at once. On NATO, Afghanistan and other subjects, he emphasised continuity during the campaign and is likely to practice it for the first part of his presidency, at least.
By tradition, the President dominates foreign and security policymaking in France. But Hollande is aware that he – like Sarkozy in 2007 – has little foreign policy experience, and he will rely very much on heavyweight ministers in Foreign Affairs and Defence. Figures like Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister, have been mentioned, but at the moment there is only speculation to go on. Hollande is also a calm, collegiate individual, who will not take sudden and unexpected personal foreign policy initiatives.
Much depends, though, on who is in the next government. Here, all eyes are on the next legislative (parliamentary) elections, whose two rounds are on 10 and 17 June. For various reasons, including disunity on the Right, the Left is currently expected to win, but the idiosyncratic nature of the French electoral system makes almost any outcome technically possible. If the mainstream Right manages to stay together, and if the National Front does worse than expected, then another bout of what the French call cohabitation is not out of the question.
In the medium term, there could be a number of changes of emphasis. Hollande and his allies are known to be sympathetic to a greater role for parliaments generally in foreign and security policy: this may have implications for Brussels. Hollande may also be the President to finally update and modernise French policy on Africa, free as he is of the business links that prevented Sarkozy from doing so. There may be less overt warmth towards the UK, especially as a major champion of austerity in Europe, but the pragmatic need for defence and security cooperation will remain. Finally, a move from austerity to growth, when it eventually comes, will strengthen the European economy, and so reduce the danger of opposition to Brussels’ economic policies spilling over into opposition to the European project generally.
For a generation, Europe has been the focus of French foreign and security policy. It is not by accident that the word “European” was added to the title of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2007, with a Minister appointed specifically for European Affairs. Indeed, the last decade has seen the European departments of various Ministries in Paris become more and more powerful, sometimes at the expense of regional and thematic experts who understand the actual issues. The concentration on Europe, and on the strengthening of its defence and security aspects, crosses party lines, and has survived episodes of the cohabitation of Presidents of the Left and Governments of the Right, and vice versa. In spite of the economic crisis, both of the major Presidential candidates went out of their way to stress the continued international importance of France, and its major role in the world and Europe, in a way that would be seen as unusual in almost any other country. In both the short and the medium term, therefore, we are likely to see continuity, rather than change.