Is there a place for Russia in Francois Hollande’s foreign policy priorities?
Valdaiclub.com interview with Arnaud Dubien, Head of the French-Russian Analytical Center “Observatory”.
Has France’s foreign policy changed since the Socialist Francois Hollande was elected president? What are France’s foreign policy priorities today?
Since Hollande was elected president last May, he has preserved continuity with the foreign policy of Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite the change in the political majority and presidents, there is still some degree of consensus, although each presidency has its nuances.
Today Europe remains a priority for Hollande, especially resolving the crisis in the European Union and building new relations with Germany and the United Kingdom.
Relations with Germany are the main issue. In the very beginning of his presidency, Hollande did much to change the paradigm of these relations and not without success. He won Italy’s support in the process. Hollande also managed to deal with the European Central Bank, and now it will play a more active role rather than be neutral as Germany has historically insisted. Hollande has achieved some progress on these issues.
The current status of the EU budget represents a paradoxical victory for Britain. Although the crisis is not yet over, the disastrous scenarios that were described last summer will not come to pass either. Hollande deserves some of the credit for this, as do other European leaders and the top officials of the European Central Bank.
No significant changes will take place in France’s relations with the United States and NATO. They may have been changes if a new US president had been elected but they are unlikely under the Barack Obama administration.
There are no major changes in other areas of France’s foreign policy. There are some countries with which Sarkozy has quarreled for personal or sometimes political reasons. For example, the Year of Mexico in France was cancelled because of the incident involving a recently released French prisoner. There have been chilly periods in relations with Turkey with which Sarkozy had a quarrel on its EU joining. I don’t think Hollande is going to be an active supporter of Turkey’s bid for EU membership, but at least he doesn’t consider it necessary to remind the Turks on a daily basis that there is no place for them in EU. All these countries are very important for France. I must also mention relations with Algeria and Sarkozy’s negative image in Maghreb due to visa issues. Last December Hollande visited Algeria and as a result Algeria opened its air space to French war planes despite historical precedent.
What is the role of Russia in Hollande’s foreign policy?
Analysts expected abrupt changes on this front, because Hollande is a Socialist. There is an obvious historical parallel – in 1981 the Soviet Communist regime did not immediately take to Francois Mitterrand, the new Socialist president, because it had placed its bet on Valery Giscard d’Estaing early in the election campaign. In the last few years, Russia has not maintained contacts with France’s Socialist Party and does not know much about its values, goals and priorities. So Russia would have preferred Sarkozy to remain president because he was easy to understand. That said, unlike most of his fellow Socialists, Hollande is pragmatic.
He wants to develop relations with Russia, with special emphasis on trade and economic cooperation. Economic diplomacy has been proclaimed as the main goal of French foreign policy.
Abrupt changes – including the ones for the worse – are unlikely in Russian-French relations. I don’t expect a demonstrative breakthrough either. That said, relations will be on the upswing, all the more so since France’s share in the Russian market is growing. Needless to say, there are some minor episodes that leave a bad taste – sometimes officials of both sides are denied visas. There was a strange episode with the Russian Orthodox Center in Paris. However, I believe that on the whole France is consolidating its ties with Russia today.
Why did France decide to intervene unilaterally in Mali? What do you think about Russia’s position on the French military operation?
Nobody dared do anything in the beginning. Everyone understood that the problem was growing. There were some plans for the autumn, but the world community thought that there would be enough time to form an African contingent and adopt resolutions. Nobody expected the Islamists to take such bold action to expand their territory. Meanwhile, they saw how slowly the preparations for operations were progressing and decided to take preemptive action. France was the only country capable of quickly stopping the columns of Islamists that could have seized major cities in the center and south of Mali. It’s pretty simple. Nobody except France was going to do anything and there were only two options left – surrender Mali to the Islamists or prevent this. As one of the few great military powers left in the world, France decided to stop them, and bears responsibility for this action.
As for Moscow’s reaction, despite minor issues in our relations and a huge Syrian problem, Moscow realized that in this particular case the issue was terrorism and that this was a real threat, as in the case of Afghanistan and Somalia. Islamists could have formed a totally uncontrollable enclave in the very heart of Africa where Black Africa borders Arab Africa. Russia made a sober assessment of the threat and expressed its readiness to cooperate. Russia was prepared to lease aircrafts, which France appreciated. Unlike the Syrian problem, this move fosters a development in bilateral relations.
What do you think about Gerard Depardieu taking Russian citizenship? Is this a PR move by Russia, or is this something the actor sought out?
I don’t think it was his idea. Someone prompted him to do this. And this is hardly a successfully PR move. At any rate, it generated a negative response in France. It further discredits Depardieu, who already had developed a bad reputation in France over last 15 years because of the weak films he worked on.
I must say that Hollande took this badly. I guess the Russian leaders did not fully grasp the situation. They did not mean to cause any harm and merely improvised, as often happens in Russia, especially during holidays. Nor did they fully understand in full how French society and the government would perceive this. So it’s hard to see how this move benefited anyone.
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