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Let them eat crêpe
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 07 - 2008

Gamal Nkrumah sounds out French Ambassador to Egypt Philippe Coste
"There are four national priorities as far as the French European presidency is concerned: climate change, defense and security, migration and the Common Agricultural Policy," French Ambassador to Egypt Philippe Coste told Al-Ahram Weekly.
There are moments in political history when the tectonic plates can be heard rumbling beneath the surface. For France, this seems to be one such moment. The country is poised to shape the future course of European history. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pulled off a remarkable political turnaround. Unperturbed by the result of the Irish referendum on 12 June in which voters in Ireland rejected the Lisbon Reform Treaty, France is looking forward to its European Union presidency as a period in which it would consolidate European unity and reaffirm ties with countries Paris has traditionally had strong historical ties with. And, the list of such countries includes those of the southern Mediterranean as well as Africa south of the Sahara.
The question, however, is will France seize the moment? For the time being it seems to be doing just that. The first week of French presidency kicked off with the unprecedented summit launching the much-publicised Union for the Mediterranean, itself a rehash of the decade-old initiative dubbed the Barcelona Process.
But what about the touted priorities -- migration and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)? Surely they will pose a problem for this new union, considering the continued flood of economic refugees and the food crisis gripping Africa in the face of massive CAP subsidies, which only help to undermine subsistence farming.
France, has long argued that such a union does not imply the loosening of traditional ties with Africa south of the Sahara. Indeed, there are certain European concerns such as "illegal" immigration and conflict in the Sahara in which the involvement at a governmental level between countries north and south of the Sahara as well as the EU can neither be discounted nor undervalued.
"There is a shortage in labour markets in Europe," said Coste. "At the moment 10 per cent of migrants are professional. France now wants as much as 50 per cent to be professional -- people of talent, investors, entrepreneurs, sportsmen and artists." This, alas, smacks of a brain drain, and hardly addresses the ongoing haemorrhage of destitute Africans in search of greener European pastures.
Many observers have felt the eastward expansion of the EU was to the benefit of Germany, the major net contributor to the EU budget. Now, it is France's turn to try to shape things to its advantage, banking on its long-standing links with the countries of Africa and the Mediterranean. This change of fortune raises two somewhat timely albeit academic questions. Is the six-month French presidency of the EU sufficient enough time to make Sarkozy a contemporary Napoleon Bonaparte? And, would he prove a good one?
The short answer to the first question is: certainly not. Sarkozy is no Napoleon, and this by no means implies any belittling of Sarkozy himself. Indeed, the two men probably do share certain character traits. Napoleon was a visionary, and so is Sarkozy. His vision, however, is practical and to the point and far less recklessly ambitious than Napoleon's. Sarkozy knows what he wants, and more importantly how to get it. He also understands fully the constrictions and limitations of the parameters he is obliged to work within.
He happens to be at the helm when the circumstances are propitious for a French political revival. And, hence the importance of the second question.
France is no superpower. It is a second rate power at best, albeit a particularly influential one in Africa and the Arab world. History attests that most of France's former colonies in Africa were predominantly Muslim nations -- both north and south of the Sahara. Against such a backdrop, France indeed can capitalise on its traditional ties to enhance its political prestige and influence within Europe itself. However, France is in no position to bankroll any grandiose projects or agendas.
An easy explanation for this reversal of fortunes is that Sarkozy has emerged as the champion of neo-liberalism. In other words, he is the Margaret Thatcher of contemporary France. However, unlike Thatcher, Sarkozy is unlikely to indulge in romanticist adventurism overseas.
Sarkozy's economic vision for France could mark a turn in the country's economic fortunes. However, it does come at a time of a global economic downturn especially as far as the United States is concerned. But would all this attest to his considerable diplomatic successes? "President Sarkozy has excellent working relations with both the Israelis and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas," Coste told the Weekly. He pointed out that even though France might not have the political clout of the US, it can still propel the pace of peace in the Middle East forward.
Sarkozy was feted as a star when he visited Israel on 22-24 June. This was the first visit by a French president to Israel in almost 12 years, a fact that was not lost on his hosts. He rekindled the eternal flame for Holocaust victims at the Yad Bashem Holocaust Memorial. "However, he did stress that the Israelis must stop building new settlements. And, that such a decision would be vital to the advancement of the cause of peace in the Middle East," Ambassador Coste stresses.
The French president, nevertheless, was unabashedly frank about France's commitment to Israel. Sarkozy's memorable speech before the Israeli Knesset impressed his Israeli hosts. "Anyone trying to destroy Israel will find France blocking the way," Sarkozy declared much to the delight of his hosts. "I have always been and always will be a friend of Israel," the French president insisted. He had no illusions, however, about France's place in the contemporary Israeli scheme of things.
Moreover, Sarkozy, Ambassador Coste assured the Weekly, careful to demonstrate that he was even-handed in his dealings with Arabs and Israelis. Indeed, his plea that the Israelis "share Jerusalem with the Palestinians" did not go down very well. Sarkozy also stated that the Palestinians "have the right to a viable state of their own". What, however, infuriated many Israeli parliamentarians was Sarkozy's urging his Israeli hosts to freeze the settlements on the West Bank.
"I am more convinced than ever that the security of Israel will only be truly guaranteed with the birth of a second state, a Palestinian state," Sarkozy said in Israel. Though he was careful to add, "there can be no peace if Palestinians themselves do not combat terrorism."
"Sarkozy is the first French president to address the Knesset since the late president François Mitterrand in the 1982," pointed out Ambassador Coste, emphasising his commitment to Israel.
Concerning domestic and EU policy, immigration, the ambassador chimed, was a key question as far as France and the EU were concerned. That needless to say is a bit of a problem. It is no secret that thousands of Africans (from both north and south of the Sahara) have drown in the Mediterranean in desperate attempts to seek better employment opportunities in Europe. The French, the ambassador also revealed, are particularly interested in the integration or assimilation of the immigrants into French society. New laws are being promulgated to ease their integration.
As for the Union for the Mediterranean, it is too late to expect the French to come up with a new detailed and costed agenda for the Mediterranean. The Germans, much to the consternation of calculating German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are still expected to foot the bills. The French simply conjure up bright ideas. It all seems gaffe-prone. There is plenty of time for the French to fluff it.

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