Monday, 24 October 2011

Just wait until a socialist is in the Elysee Palace

News of Nicolas Sarkozy bawling out David Cameron in Brussels yesterday highlights the extreme tension currently being felt by eurozone leaders. That this tension resulted in an expression of sheer exasperation aimed at the UK is no surprise. Keen students of decades of European summits are aware of numerous examples of UK Prime Ministers ruffling feathers only to feel the sharp edge of the French President's tongue, particularly with an election only months away. The irony is that the great foreign policy development of David Cameron's premiership has been the resurgence of a new entente cordiale between the UK and France. Despite all their talk of sharing a European-style, social democratic, view of politics neither Tony Blair or Gordon Brown forged significant strategic partnerships with our European neighbours. Instead, both devoted considerable time and energy in attempting to woo the United States to wildly differing degrees of success. 

David Cameron's foreign policy has not been driven by ideology or rhetoric but by pragmatism. Yes, he and other Conservative ministers have healthy links with America, but they also recognise that power in the world is shifting East. It follows that America's gaze drifts increasingly elsewhere. As we saw with David Cameron's trade missions earlier this year, Number 10 and the Foreign Office under William Hague are happy to embrace this reality too rather than fight against it.

A more relaxed attitude towards America opens up other opportunities. The great success of Cameron and Hague has been working with France in a way that helps our long-term strategic partnership with the US rather than hinders it; strengthening our position at the top table of key international institutions rather than merely being seen as America's poodle.

For instance greater cooperation between the Royal Navy and the French Navy in training and pooling of resources helps meet the challenge of today's dire financial circumstances, however difficult it is for some to accept, while going some way to protecting our position as an upper second division military power. More positively, the leadership shown by the Anglo-French forces in Libya achieved something America has wished for over successive presidencies: the removal of Colonel Gaddafi.

In other areas, as we saw from this weekend's summit and on key reforms in subsidies and the general bureaucracy of the European Union, progress is far slower. Differences on issues such as regulation of hedge funds and tax havens have often been stark. However, acceptable - from the UK's point of view - progress is far more likely while a friendly face is in the Elysee Palace. President Sarkozy's intervention to help out when Cameron's father was taken ill, providing a military helicopter which ensured the Prime Minister was able to be at his father's bedside, was a great gesture that has added warmth to their relationship. Other ministers regularly hitch lifts to far-flung international conferences on French airforce jets saving the British taxpayer thousands in airfares and building further ties between the two countries. One example of how these personal links are said to be paying dividends is the warm relationship between George Osborne and Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, which was forged when Ms Lagarde was the French Finance Minister.

This cosy world could all come to an end next year as socialist Fran├žois Hollande has been handed his party's ticket and looks set to beat Nicholas Sarkozy in the presidential election. The polling numbers for the incumbent look very difficult to overturn. Hollande, a career bureaucrat of the classic French tradition, is said to be good company but has also admitted that he "hates the rich". While this kind of overt, old fashioned, socialism has brought him out of the shadows and is predicted to see him beat Sarkozy in seven months time, his outlook is unlikely to win many admirers in Number 10. His view of France in the modern world is also likely to be more traditional as befits a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. Outbursts like Sarkozy's could become the norm not the exception. The last socialist president of France was Francois Mitterrand in 1988, with Hollande the old Franco-German alliance which caused Mrs Thatcher so many problems could be rejuvenated and the UK marginalised.  

While, like all French Presidents, Sarkozy has fought fiercely for the French national interest, the past 18 months have seen a firm political understanding with David Cameron develop which has already achieved so much. If Hollande is to win next May let us hope that Sarkozy leaves a positive legacy of enhanced cooperation with the UK or the election of "Monsieur Ordinary" could see the end of the modern entente cordiale.       

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