French election won’t harm relations with Russia
When Nicolas Sarkozy became French president in 2007, Moscow was upset. With Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin shared similar views about the proper European and world order.
It was Chirac who basically won Putin’s support of the French and German position against the US-led war in Iraq. He “infected” the Russian president with rhetoric on a multipolar world.
Sarkozy was, on the other hand, seen as a fanatical Atlanticist. He confirmed this reputation formally. He brought France back to NATO’s military structure, which Charles de Gaulle left in the 1960s. He made France the main instigator in the Libyan war, which was declared a NATO campaign.
But did it mean any harm to ties with Russia? Not at all. With regard to Moscow, Sarkozy continued the traditional French line, which is based on the assumption that balance is a cornerstone of European stability. The closer France is to Washington, the more important to compensate it by relations with Moscow.
Russia has no reason either to want Sarkozy out of office or to pin great hopes on his victory. Russian leaders have not developed the kind of special relationship with him, although they, especially Putin, understand the way he thinks. They have much in common, particularly a good grasp of business (reflected in their interest in large-scale business projects) and an ambition to affirm their country’s might (something the French call grandeur).
Sarkozy’s presidency saw two landmark events involving Russia – his contribution to ending the Russian-Georgian War and the sale of Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. France’s mediation between Russia and Georgia in 2008 helped all involved emerge from an acute military and political crisis with just a few scratches and without losing face. No one knows how the war would have played out had a country other than France been leading Europe at the time.
As for the Mistrals, Russian experts are still debating their value to the national defense, but all agree the political implications of that sale are hard to overstate. It was the first time that Russia agreed to purchase foreign military equipment, marking a drastic change in philosophy: a transition away from autarky in the defense sphere, which characterized the Soviet approach.
France and Germany use to serve as two pillars of Russian policy in Europe. Russian-German relations are rooted in the deep and lasting interest of Germany’s business community in the Eastern (predominantly Russian) markets.
Politically, West Germany advocated energy cooperation with the Soviet Union even at the height of the Cold War, when US President Ronald Reagan declared a crusade against the “evil empire.” To this day the geopolitical picture of Europe is largely determined by the pipelines built during the Brezhnev era.
Russia’s relations with France are, conversely, dominated by post de Gaulle politics. French leaders have espoused radically different ideologies, but they never lost sight of France’s greatness, and all shared a particular vision of a stable geopolitical and strategic European architecture – with Paris at its core.
There is, of course, the obligatory Atlantic component to this, but since France has always insisted on having special status in relations with the United States, this should be balanced out by a solid relationship with Russia.
This is how it was during the Soviet era, and the Soviet Union’s collapse has not changed anything. When Nicolas Sarkozy, who has a strong business bent, was elected president, a commercial element was added to the geopolitical system of bilateral relations. In this sense, Paris seems to be trying to catch up with Berlin. The deal to sell Mistral helicopter-carriers to Russia is indicative: the deal itself is commercial, but the commodity is clearly political.
Historically, France has often looked to Moscow in times of trouble, as has Germany for that matter, because Russia was the only source of potential economic and political gains in the region, and rapprochement often helped improve those countries’ positions.
Any French president will be interested in maintaining and strengthening contacts with Russia, be it Sarkozy, with his highly unusual personality, or Francois Hollande, who seems far more conventional.
This article was originally published on www.rt.com