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France on the eve of Transatlantic mending
28.03.07
MOSCOW. (Olga Sukhova, rian.ru site commentator) –

The election campaign in France is gaining momentum. According to market research company Ipsos, the favorites are Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) with 29.5%, and Socialist Sergolene Royal with 25.5%.
In the last few weeks, the ratings of Francois Bayrou, leader of the democrats-centrists have unexpectedly soared to 20.5%. Jean-Marie Le Pen from the right-wing extremist National Front is lagging far behind with 12.5%. Let us try to analyze the French elections in the context of forthcoming changes in other key European countries, and see how these changes could affect the Europe-Russia relations.
The first striking feature of the French elections is the absence of an obvious leader. Sarkozy has the strongest positions, of course, but the rapid growth of Bayrou’s popularity has compelled many voters to doubt his success. Although Royal has lost some points since the start of her election race, she is still a rather strong rival for the former Minister of the Interior. So, the gap between them will be minimal. Indicatively, the recent elections in many European countries (Germany, Italy and Sweden, for example) were very much the same – the winners received an insignificant majority of votes.
The editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Politics magazine Fyodor Lukyanov explains that both Sarkozy and Royal are fighting for the same voters – centrists. The former is also trying to win the ultra-right votes, while the latter is flirting with the ultra-left. Head of the Institute of Europe’s French Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences Yury Rubinsky is convinced that both had to resort to this double play for a reason: “Although both Sarkozy and Royal are rather unconventional – she is a woman and he is a son of a Hungarian ÊmigrÊ, they are not fundamentally different from each other, and have quite traditional programs – social reforms, restoring of law and order, etc. For this reason they have to look back at other voters – Sarkozy at those who are backing Le Pen, and Royal at the Communists and Trotskyites. This is a drain on both of them.”
By contrast, Bayrou’s popularity has been growing impressively. The polls show that he has actually doubled his rating in a month or two. This is hardly surprising because the French are disappointed both with the left and the right. But the expert is certain that the center is not independent, and it would be premature to predict his victory in the second round (if he gets to it). “Sarkozy is not Le Pen, and even many left-wingers will not vote for Bayrou just to prevent Sarkozy from becoming president. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won 82% of votes because Le Pen qualified for the second round. But Sarkozy is not such a strong allergen,” Rubinsky said.
How will the outcome of the elections affect relations between Paris and Moscow? This is what Alexander Ignatov, president of the Friends of France Association, thinks on the subject: “Despite the generally negative public attitude to Russia, Chirac managed to maintain close relations with Moscow. A new person, no matter who he or she is, will not have enough courage or experience to do what he or she considers essential. Chirac’s departure will cool off, if not worsen relations with Moscow, as was the case with Germany when Gerhard Schroeder left.”
When Romano Prodi-led left-wing centrists came to power in Italy, and the Angela Merkel-led right-wing coalition assumed office in Germany, their policies towards Russia became similar – cooperation has continued but without former political warmth. Yury Rubinsky is convinced that Chirac’s successor will do the same – bilateral relations will not be hit by a crisis, but there will be no “declarations of love”, either. He has pointed out that adjustments in German and French policies should be viewed in the context of the forthcoming change of government in Britain: in 2007, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown may replace Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Brown’s position is weak both in the country and in his party, and it is hard to say whether he will be able to retain Britain’s status as the U.S. chief armor-bearer in Europe,” Rubinsky said.
He thinks that Merkel has shown enough political wisdom to mend relations with the U.S. Sarkozy is likely to exploit the change of guards in London, especially since he has repeatedly demonstrated his pro-Atlantic stance during his visits to the U.S. and on other occasions. If Sergolene Royal wins, relations are not likely to improve either because the left-wingers have traditionally been lashing out at Russia for its human rights record.
In a nutshell, Russian-French relations will undergo certain evolution. Its direction will be clear when the election circle is completed (in France, parliament is elected after the president). Experts agree that any winner will primarily concentrate on European development. Even potential invigoration of contacts with the U.S. should be viewed in the context of reaffirming France’s leadership in the EU. Fyodor Lukyanov summed up, “Europeans know full well that the U.S. negative, not to say hostile, attitude to Europe can make its integration extremely difficult because the U.S. has a lot of levers and instruments to prevent Europe from achieving fully-fledged political unification.”
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-