Torn between backing long-time dictator allies and supporting the surging popular revolts seeking to bring those regimes down, few Western governments have sparkled in their tormented responses to protests sweeping the Arab world. But few nations have appeared as dumbly frozen in those headlights as France—where the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has limited its reaction to repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. Now, however, it’s becoming clear that fumbling has largely been the result of France’s once mighty global diplomatic network having been stripped down and ignored as Sarkozy and his staff monopolized foreign policy inside the Elysée.
Foreign policy has always been primarily orchestrated by French presidents, who traditionally leave domestic affairs to their governments. But as part of his “hyper-presidency” that has left little to his cabinet to attend to at home, Sarkozy has also placed foreign affairs under a veritable Elysée dome only he and he staff may access. Known for his love of action and fast results, Sarkozy has long disdained the highly trained bureaucrats who make up France’s elite civil service. That impatience extends to the diplomats and analysts Sarkozy and his advisors tend to snub while conducting foreign policy. That attitude—and recent deep budget cuts—have left France’s Foreign Affairs ministry and the diplomatic network it runs (still the world’s second-largest after the U.S.) weakened, marginalized, and depressed.
But with Sarkozy having placed the blame for France’s somnolent reaction to events in the Arab world on its supposedly clueless embassies, France’s envoys are now pushing back in a most undiplomatic manner. On Feb 22, le Monde ran an editorial by a group of unidentified diplomats blaming the Elysée for France’s stuttering response to uprisings in Arab countries (some former French colonies to boot). The editorial said French foreign policy monopolized by Sarkozy has been characterized by “improvisation…often explained by domestic politics”, whose “amateurism, impulsiveness, and short-term media objectives” were why the authors “aren’t surprised by (its) failures”. Contrary to the claims by the Elysée that France’s diplomats provided no warnings or predictions of the current revolts, the authors insisted “the policies adopted towards Tunisia and Egypt were defined by the presidency of the Republic, without taking into account the analyses of our ambassadors”.
“Contrary to trumpeted statements over the past three years, Europe is powerless, Africa is escaping us, the Mediterranean is snubbing us us, China has dominated us, and Washington is ignoring us!” the editorial said of Sarkozy’s foreign policy record.
The following day, Elysée advisors struck back, calling the le Monde text “a political tract” flawed by factual imprecision. Perhaps, but its criticisms echoe similar complaints previously made about Sarkozy’s go-it-alone, headstrong management of domestic affairs—including by some conservatives. Worst still, it isn’t the first time such objections have been made about Sarkozy’s foreign policy management. Former French Ambassador to Senegal, Jean-Christophe Rufin, said last July that slashed funded had vastly undermined the ability of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and its diplomatic missions to operate, while the Elysée’s open scorn of its functionaries had sapped morale. Informal bilateral links the presidency had struck up with foreign leaders to avoid Foreign Ministry involvement, Rufin charged, had created an opaque and unaccountable web of relationships between the Elysée and foreign heads of state.
Even earlier in July, two former French Foreign Ministers—including current Defense Minister Alain Juppé—wrote an article in le Monde warning Sarkozy’s marginalization of France’s diplomatic apparatus had had “a devastating effect” on it, and had brought it “to the breaking point, which is visible everywhere in the world”. If France’s diplomatic partners hadn’t tweaked to the breakdown before, the Arab street has made it very clear to them now.