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The ghost in the palace

Under fire at home, Hollande seeks solace in the vestiges of France’s international power

France is back on the international scene, at a time when its president, François Hollande, has been discredited among his own public in a country which is extremely unsure about the future. We often go abroad for a breath of fresh air when the atmosphere is getting dirty at home.

It happened recently in Geneva, in the negotiations of the so-called 5+1 Group (the five permanent countries on the UN Security Council, plus Germany) with Iran, for the control of its nuclear program. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, swooped in when he learned that John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was going to make a detour on his agenda in the Middle East as a preliminary agreement with Iran was brewing. Fabius' aim was to forestall the conclusion of a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran without the other members having even been informed.

The wariness — if not the direct opposition - of both Israel and Saudi Arabia was widely known. Both countries have tactical and strategic reasons to oppose any negotiation that does not directly lead to the total dismantling of the program, and even to regime change. In the short term, neither of them can allow Tehran to get the bomb. And in the longer term, both fear a normal, internationally recognized Iran, ready to make a bomb when it so desires.

Whenever the old nation-state raises its head, France is among the first noses to appear, as is happening in the present stage of world disorder

Not so narrowly focused was the wariness of France, so lately cheered by the right in Washington and by Netanyahu in Jerusalem. There are reasons of convenience and even of opportunism for its sudden appearance on center stage. Hollande was preparing his visit to Israel and his speech to the Knesset. France is still sore from the bruise inflicted when Obama dropped the idea of attacking Bashar al-Assad, when the French jets were already warming up their engines. Also at stake were arms contracts for Riyadh, and nature's abhorrence of a vacuum: if France wakes up it is because Washington is sleeping.

There are further reasons, having to do with the French identity, and the role assigned to the man who embodies national sovereignty. The French presidential palace, the Elysée, is inhabited by a ghost that confers exceptional powers on the inhabitant. He may be a president of the right or the left, a personality strong or weak — or weak and of the left like François Hollande — but the steps of the man in the Elysée tend to follow the prints left by the huge shoes of General De Gaulle, the president who founded the existing Republic, and equipped himself with maximum powers, with an eye to talking on equal terms to the twin superpowers of the time, the United States and the USSR. One of these powers was the nuclear button, which, since the first test in 1960, has been an instrument not only of defense, but also of French foreign policy; an affirmation of France as a star player on the global scene. Hollande has thus used an instrument kept tuned and ready at his fingertips.

Whenever the old nation-state raises its head, France is among the first noses to appear - as is happening in the present stage of world disorder, American withdrawal, European renationalization and the consolidation of the emerging countries, who are far more comfortable with the idea of sovereignty existing in Europe since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, than with the concept of international order, or of integration in regional blocs such as the EU, which has been the fashion in recent decades. Such phenomena tend to be of long duration and manifold effects, but they crystallize at certain moments, like in Geneva. The noise made by the sudden French leadership on the side of the hawks may be more ephemeral in nature, whereby the Socialist, Europeanist France of Hollande expresses its unbreakable habit of intervening on the world scene as if it were a great power.

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