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Sarkozy the American?

Not any more.

12:00 AM, May 2, 2007 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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THE CHIRAC ERA is fast coming to a close. After a twelve-year stint as French president, Chirac will soon leave the Elysée Palace, and his successor will most likely be none other than Chirac's interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. But despite Sarkozy's ties to Chirac, he represents a glimmer of hope for many in the United States who would like to see a major improvement in relations between the two. But things might not be that straightforward.

It's important to keep in mind that out of all the candidates, Sarkozy is the most pro-American of the field. He has been scornfully nicknamed "the American" or, even worse, "the neocon"--now a common epithet among the French. In a country where anti-Americanism is a national sport, his adversaries are quick to point out his pro-American views.

Until recently, Sarkozy was content to be labeled as pro-American. In fact, during his latest visit to the United States, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Sarkozy asked and obtained a photo-op with President Bush at the White House. Then, in a landmark speech on September 12, 2006, Sarkozy underlined his attachment to the United States:

My dedication to our relationship with America is well known and has earned me substantial criticism in France. But let me tell you something, I'm not a coward. I embrace that friendship, I'm proud of the friendship between France and the United States and I proclaim it gladly.

He also went as far as criticizing the arrogance of French diplomacy in a thinly veiled attack on Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique De Villepin.

But that was then, now Sarkozy is singing to a different tune. On February 28, in his most important foreign policy speech to date, Sarkozy barely strayed from the Chirac line. He started by praising Chirac for his leadership on matters of foreign policy, including his "lucidity" in keeping France from entering the war in Iraq, which he called a "historic mistake." When a journalist asked him about his Atlantist reputation, Sarkozy challenged her to "find one text or broadcast where he supported George Bush's actions in Iraq." Speaking about relations with the United States, Sarkozy stated in a very Chirac-like style that France would not be submissive, and he asked his "American friends to let us be free, free to be their friends." Interestingly, Sarkozy who is often criticized for being too supportive of Israel in a country with a pro-Arab policy tradition, explained that the Israeli response to Hezbollah last year had been "disproportionate"--the same word Chirac had uttered back in July 2006.

If that speech was not enough to show Sarkozy's turnaround, another confirmation came from Pierre Pean's just released book, The Unknown From the Elysée. Chirac told Pean that while Sarkozy and he have different visions of the world, recently the two views seem to be converging.

Sarkozy is first and foremost a formidable political animal. He has realized that he needs the support of Chirac and that he cannot afford to alienate the electorate with his strong pro-American views. In light of this, Americans might need to tame down their expectations of a Sarkozy administration. Unfortunately, a major shift in French foreign policy is unlikely.

Olivier Guitta is the editor of the Croissant, a foreign affairs and counterterrorism newsletter.