First dilemmas of Nicolas Sarkozy

First published: 3 July 2007

There was no doubt as to the project of Nicolas Sarkozy when he was elected president of France in May this year. When the US launched the Iraq war this had not been supported by three of the four major European governments – those of Russia, Germany and France. Only Britain actively collaborated with the US. While the opposition of the European powers was mainly verbal, nevertheless this division between the imperialists undoubtedly helped strengthen the international anti-war movement and, to a limited degree, the resistance in Iraq.

A key aim of the US administration therefore became to remove the European governments which had not actively supported it. This was secured first in Germany in November 2005 when Merkel replaced Schroeder. Sarkozy’s election in France was the second step in this policy.

Sarkozy’s deliberate strategy was to actively realign French policy with that of the US. This pro-US orientation was openly proclaimed by Sarkozy himself and reflected in the appointment of Kouchner, one of the few Socialist Party members to support the Iraq war, as foreign minister.

This orientation was also shown in Sarkozy’s first steps in foreign policy. Most immediately Lebanon is one of the areas in the world where the interests of French and US imperialism most directly coincide. France, in alliance with the Lebanese Christian leaders, was the traditional dominant imperialist power in the country. Today the US is aligned with this, and with Israel, in its opposition to Syria. Kouchner was therefore duly dispatched to Lebanon soon after Sarkozy’s election and a new more active anti-Syrian and anti-Palestinian line encouraged for the Lebanese government.

However it is one thing to have an orientation towards alignment with US policy and another to be able to carry through all the implications of such a policy. Sarkozy has therefore encountered contradictions at both the economic and political levels.

Economically the aim of US imperialism is, of course, to strengthen its own positions, not that of its competitors. US imperialism specifically utilises military means, as in Iraq, because it is not competitive on the economic level compared to rival imperialisms – as shown graphically in the US’s ever widening balance of payments deficit.

One of the areas in which the US remains economically competitive however is in civil aviation – aided by the huge hidden subsidies Boeing, the totally dominant US producer, receives for its military work. Boeing’s only serious competitor is the European, French dominated, rival Airbus. Airbus however has been suffering from major problems in the last period due to the rise of the exchange rate of the euro against the dollar, which gives Boeing a greater competitive edge, and difficulties in developing its new A380 large airliner. Economically it would be strongly in the interests of the US for Airbus to weaken further. However for French imperialism Airbus is one of its most important high technology economic projects. Since his election Sarkozy has therefore stepped up support to Airbus – a move which is not in the interests of US imperialism.

Politically, in order to weaken the cohesion of the European Union (EU), the US has been encouraging and linking to a number of ‘nationalist’ currents. Thus in Britain the practical content of the ‘eurosceptic’ press, and ‘eurosceptic’ orientation of the Tory party, is subordination to the US – as clearly articulated by leading Tory strategists such as Gove. In Poland the US is in alliance with the Kaczynski twins who, as president and prime minister, make use of and/or are supported by homophobic, anti-Russian and anti-semitic currents. Sarkozy made French nationalist rhetoric central during the presidential election, emphasising patriotic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim themes.

But this has orientation has led Sarkozy into an important strategic difference with the US over Turkey’s potential membership of the EU. Turkey is one of the US’s most important Middle Eastern allies – the most powerful Islamic country whose leaders have been prepared to openly ally with Israel. The core alliance within Turkey for the US is the country’s military elite which has a record not simply of coups but of resolute opposition to ‘islamist’, that is anti-US, currents – Turkey maintains the greatest number of members of the armed forces of any country in NATO apart from the US. The traditional dominance of the pro-US military and their political allies has however been eroded due to their craven subordination to the interests of the US. The military were unable to openly allow Turkey to be used by the US in the invasion of Iraq, and anti-US ‘islamist’ currents, that is those who see Turkey’s future as in alliance with states in the Middle East rather than the US, have strengthened.

The US therefore considers it strategically important to give a firmer economic and social context for the Turkish military and its allies to operate in by Turkey joining the EU. Sarkozy’s anti-Islamic rhetoric however led him to categorically oppose Turkish membership of the EU during the presidential election campaign and he has maintained that position since. The US fears that this situation whereby Turkey is permanently and explicitly blocked from joining the EU is likely to strengthen anti-Western currents in the country. This is a major strategic difference between Sarkozy and the US.

Despite such problems, Sarkozy had little difficulty in the period leading to the election campaign in overcoming French bourgeois opposition to his attempt to form a closer alliance with US imperialism. The pro-Chirac forces in the ruling UMP party, which had refused to support the US invasion of Iraq, were pushed aside. The Socialist Party was defeated in the presidential election. These results confirm, once more, that the French and Germany bourgeoisies are incapable of serious resistance to the US on the most important issues – due to their military and international political dependence on it.

But Sarkozy faces a different issue in the French population. Sarkozy’s aim is to move France closer to an ‘Anglo-Saxon/Reagan-Thatcher’ style of capitalism. The problem is, however, that French imperialism does not enjoy the economic reserves enjoyed by either Reagan or Thatcher during their periods of full blooded assault on the working class and labour movements in the 1980s. Reagan possessed the ability of the US to borrow trillions of dollars abroad in the short and medium term – due to the dominant international role of the dollar and the leading position of the US within the imperialist system. Reagan could therefore pursue a policy of allowing the competitiveness of the economy to decline while still being able to finance the mounting balance of payments deficits that resulted. Thatcher enjoyed the huge bonus of North Sea oil revenues – which at their peak accounted for one third of all profits generated in the UK. She could therefore also allow large parts of British manufacturing industry to collapse without this creating intolerable economic pressure.

Sarkozy possess no comparable strategic reserves. The US is allowed to borrow gigantic sums abroad but French imperialism is too weak to demand such concessions. Nor does Sarkozy have a resource similar to North Sea oil. To strengthen the competitive position of the domestic French imperialist economy requires strengthening its industrial and service sectors – which in turn, in a capitalist system, necessitates attacks on the relative living standards of the population. Sarkozy may have easily defeated other sections of the French bourgoisie but he still has to face a confrontation with the population without the economic advantages enjoyed by Reagan and Thatcher.

The test of such confrontations lies ahead but the better than expected result of the Socialist Party in the legislative elections, primarily due to the Sarkozy government’s policy of increasing VAT, showed the political problems that may lie ahead. The French trade unions throughout the 1990s won a series of major confrontations with governments and Sarkozy must reverse this if he is to drive through his project.

In addition to their evident internal significance for France, what more international conclusion can be drawn from these developments? The first, already mentioned, is that the West European bourgeoisies are incapable of putting up serious resistance to the US on the most major issues. The US succeeded in eliminating both the governments of Schroeder and Chirac for defying it over Iraq.

Only the population of Europe is therefore capable of pursuing a resolute struggle against US imperialism. There exist across the continent a series of minority, but significant, currents in which have continued to resolutely oppose the US war in Iraq and other of its policies. In some cases these are within the traditional mass parties of the working class. In others, as with Die Linke in Germany, significant new parties have formed. A crucial task is to begin to coordinate these on a European level.

Objectively these forces have a number of allies but most crucial at the level of political convergence, that is of an explicitly socialist orientation, is with the currents in Latin America led by Castro and Chávez. Coordination of this European left and forging links with the left in Latin America is therefore an urgent and central task of the present period.