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Comment | Hollande Victory in France Lessens Likelihood of War with Iran
The second round of France's presidential elections was held on Sunday, pitting François Hollande against the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. The leftist Hollande, who ran against Sarkozy's economic policies and, more broadly, the economic austerity prescription of German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- what has been called the "Merkozy plan" in Europe -- won the election. While his victory, together with the defeat of the Conservative Party in Britain in by-elections and the chaotic voting in Greece, will have a major impact on Europe, I want to concentrate on its implications for Iran, in particular the conflict over its nuclear program.
Sarkozy has taken a hard line concerning Iran's nuclear program. He led European efforts to tighten the economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic, and warned that Iran's "military nuclear and ballistic ambitions constitute a growing threat that may lead to a preventive attack against Iranian sites." Hollande, whose Socialist Party has some prominent members of Iranian origin, will likely take a different tack. For example, Forough Salami, who was born in Isfahan in 1966, is a regional adviser for the party in Brittany. He urged French citizens of Iranian heritage to vote for Hollande.
Although in an April 29 visit to a Paris memorial and museum for victims of the Holocaust, Hollande said that Iran's threats against Israel are disturbing, at least one faction within the Socialist Party has been quite critical of Israel. In an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Richard Presquier, president of the Council of French Jewish Institutions, the umbrella organization representing the French Jewish community, wrote that a victory by Hollande "will boost the anti-Israel left." French supporters of Israel view Hollande as untested on the issue and fear that leftist opponents of Israeli policies will play a large role in his government.
Hollande has promised to decrease the French military budget and focus on creating jobs for the young, improving the educational system, and increasing taxes on large corporations and the rich. The state's foreign policy should also undergo substantial changes. From the time that General Charles de Gaulle was president (1959-69), France followed a Middle East policy that, while it maintained friendly relations with Israel, was sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians and sought to broaden and deepen its relations with the Arab nations. De Gaulle emphasized the independence of French policy from that of the United States. This was more or less the French approach until Sarkozy took office five years ago. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, an ardent opponent of the Middle East policy of the George W. Bush administration, blocked the United States from obtaining the consent of the U.N. Security Council for the invasion of Iraq. Even though Sarkozy was interior minister in Chirac's government, it was widely reported that he was not happy with his boss's foreign policy and consistently aligned himself with the American neoconservatives.
As president, Sarkozy, who was infatuated with Bush's Middle East policy, changed the French orientation decisively in favor of Israel and became an outspoken critic of Iran's nuclear program. De Gaulle had taken France out of the military command of the NATO alliance; in 2009, Sarkozy returned France to the command. (Hollande has called for a review of Sarkozy's decision.) By nearly all measures, he has been the most unequivocally pro-American president in the 53 years of the French Fifth Republic. Sarkozy aligned with Washington on Iran and Syria, expanded its commitment of forces to Afghanistan, and played a leading role in the so-called "humanitarian intervention" in Libya. Only when Alain Juppé was appointed foreign minister about two years ago did Sarkozy moderate his foreign policy, and then just slightly.
Assembling a coalition with communists and smaller center-left parties, Hollande campaigned on a platform of 60 points, only four of which were devoted to foreign policy. It is unlikely, under his administration, that France will pursue military adventures in the Middle East or be dragged into one by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, who have repeatedly threatened to launch a preemptive strike against the Islamic Republic. Hollande has indicated that he will pull France's 3,600 military personnel from Afghanistan a year earlier than Sarkozy promised and that he is interested in more normal relations between the European Union and Iran; at the same time, he has pledged to be tough with those Middle Eastern nations who violate the rights of their citizens.
Socialist Party lawmaker Jean-Louis Bianco, author of a 2008 parliamentary report on Iran, declared that economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic in response to its nuclear program have been productive and that "our line would be one of great firmness." Bianco, who was chief of staff of France's last Socialist president, François Mitterrand, insisted, however, that France would oppose armed intervention even if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon. "We won't support an Israeli or American military action in Iran.... An Israeli strike won't prevent the Iranians from continuing" their nuclear program, he said. With Hollande's election in France, the likelihood that Israel can rely on Western backing for an attack on Iran has been significantly reduced.