Between March and August 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to rescue France from economic stagnation and its waning global luster by taking a lead role in the NATO expedition to oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. He had hoped that a successful military campaign would burnish France’s and his own standing as a world power.
But it is doubtful if any of the 35 million plus French citizens who voted against him in the Sunday, May 6 polls even remembered the heroic French air strikes in those months or noticed that French special forces had spearheaded the conquest of Tripoli.
Sarkozy was also disappointed in his hopes that French investment in Libyan oil fields would yield generous dividends and its stake in Africa, which is in the process of economic growth, would lift the European economy out of the dumps. Those hopes might come true in the distant future, but they did not materialize in time to save his presidency.
Even up to his last two months in power, Sarkozy still clung to the conviction that the deployment of military power overseas would bring France enough glory to save him from political defeat.
And so he pushed hard and unavailingly for direct military intervention in Syria by a combined Western-Arab force. He even dispatched substantial air force strength to bases in northern Saudi Arabia ready for an assault on Syria. The Saudis, the UAR and Qatar were behind him all the way, but the expedition faced two insuperable obstacles.
President Barack Obama, even after several long, late-night phone conversations, declined to go along with the French president’s initiative. He was also strongly thwarted by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in revenge for France’s staunch opposition to Turkey’s admission to the European Union and its alignment with Armenia’s accusations of Turkish genocide.
Erdogan finally sent agents of his MIT intelligence service to turn Turkish Muslim voters in France away from electing Sarkozy.
Hollande knows he needs Merkel with him to succeed
Even so, it is hard to believe that Sarkozy’s presidency could have been saved by the presence of French troops in Homs, or even the outskirts of Damascus. French intervention in the Syrian shambles would merely have complicated the early days of the Hollande presidency and piled a strategic predicament on top of France’s economic woes.
Refusing to be distracted from the most acute problems facing him in 2012, the incoming French president is also adamantly opposed to any Western or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program, even though his record as a statesman is intrinsically pro-Israel.
For the remainder of this year and possibly into 2013, he means to focus on dealing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and reaching terms with her on ways of solving the economic crisis besetting Europe and his country.
He knows that the policy he touted in his campaign for spurring growth, increasing government spending and raising taxes on the rich, is unacceptable to the German chancellor. He also realizes that he cannot avoid slashing government spending, improving tax collection and instituting structural reforms – all of which Sarkozy promised but never carried out.
And finally, Hollande is fully aware that he needs Merkel behind him as well as financial help from Berlin to have any hope of succeeding.
Or he can opt for leading lead an anti-German Europe
The Central and East European leaders who pinned their hopes on Hollande reining in Germany’s economic hegemony and Merkel’s tight-fisted austerity policies may end up seeing the new French president following in the path of his predecessor and cooperating with Germany and its leader.
Hollande’s ambition to break the German-French alliance and bring Paris to the fore as the leading capital of the insolvent European nations may prove to be as delusional as Sarkozy’s hope of restoring France to global eminence by military opportunism.
Of course, if Hollande did manage to create a French-led European bloc capable of contesting the German-led group of European nations it would be a huge personal triumph, although the polarizing process would come at the expense of the European ideal of inter-dependent unity and sink the euro, a common currency which Hollande has always favored.
But the new French president is not a man of brave horizons, overweening ambition or showy ways.
He is unlikely to match the sort of Sarkozy drive which restored France to the NATO alliance from which Charles de Gaulle walked out in 1966, and crafted the Mediterranean Union in 2008 for advancing France as the leading Western regional power.
The new president will have to adjust to reality
Hollande is more cautious and sober in his approach. A far as he is concerned, France was forced to rejoin NATO because its shrinking economy meant it could no longer afford to carry alone the costs of maintaining an army, a nuclear force de frappe, an aircraft carrier, a helicopter force and its own independence.
Overspending on these resources became the root-cause of the French economic crisis. Britain is in the same boat.
Both Paris and London have lost their superpower standing and resources, but have not yet been willing to cut their coat according to their cloth. So long as they don’t recognize this, David Cameron, like Nicolas Sakozy, is destined to fail. The only way Francois Holland can succeed is to adapt his aspirations and polices as president and those of the French people to their real situation.
And that is the hardest thing for a politician to do.