At the European summit that ended yesterday in Seville, the leaders of the continent found themselves facing a refreshing reality. No more French leadership with two heads. No more theatrical scenes with a rightist president and a leftist prime minister. No more sidelong glances that try not to meet. The bad old period of "cohabitation" has come to an end. During the next five years everything will be concentrated at the Elysee Palace. The excuses are over. From now on, President Jacques Chirac will be able to navigate the French ship of state as he likes.
The paralysis that had characterized French foreign policy is also left without an alibi. The burden of proof now rests with the president and his new foreign minister, Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, who arrives today in Israel for a visit.
Villepin took up the job less than two months ago, but in the matter of the Middle East a refreshing breeze can already be felt that could signal a significant change at the Quai d'Orsay.
The spokesman of the French Foreign Ministry has been instructed not to relate to what is going on in the Middle East on a daily basis. The routine moral lectures have disappeared. The cold, almost neutral condemnations that had been given after terror attacks have been replaced by new language that is clear and quite stern: "Barbaric act," "frightening," "terror that no political struggle can justify" - this is part of the new official lexicon of France, which also wishes to express "anger" and "profound solidarity with the people of Israel."
This same France has also not objected to the decision by the European Union last week to include the Al-Aqsa Brigades on the list of terrorist organizations. Villepin - in the estimation of some - is trying to build a new, healthy and independent relationship that will not be hostage to the ups and downs of the peace process. Repairing relations with Israel is very high on his list of priorities and he is interested in letting this be known.
Israel is the first state outside of Europe that de Villepin is visiting. In Jerusalem, they have grown accustomed to such gestures on the part of German politicians. Not French. Sources at the Foreign Ministry are expressing satisfaction that de Villepin will be spending a day in Israel, while at his other stops in the region - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority - he will spend only half a day. The assessment is that the new minister will want to add to the declarations and symbols a few practical proposals in areas such as scientific and cultural cooperation and so on.
Nevertheless, there should be no delusions. The new tone and style - which are important in and of themselves - do not signify any change in essence. The basic building blocks of French foreign policy with regard to Israel and the Middle East will not deviate from the parameters that prevail in Europe.
The French constitution devolves the management of foreign policy on the president. The foreign minister is responsible for implementing it. This was also the case during the period of cohabitation. During the past seven years, de Villepin was the secretary general of the Elysee Palace and Chirac's political adviser. Hence, he was also partner to the policy shaped by the president. There is no reason to assume that the two of them have modified their positions.
Furthermore, traditionally French policy in the Middle East is characterized by uniform thinking that is shared by both the right and the left. A change of government does not lead to a change in the policy in its essence: Israel is perceived as pursuing a colonialist policy; the Palestinians are the side that should be supported.
Commentator Dominique Moisi believes that the change in tone for which de Villepin is responsible is intended to change France's slipping image in the United States. "A different opera" is what sources in Washington are calling the first contacts with de Villepin. The Americans, no doubt, are not missing the previous foreign minister Hubert Vedrine and the campaign he waged against America's "simplistic and unilateral policy."
According to another view, Villepin has simply decide to try a new and sophisticated tactic in order to bring France back into the international diplomatic game without changing its basic positions. In the Jewish community in Paris, some see this as a Trojan horse: The warmth he is radiating is more dangerous than Vedrine's cold, brutal but frank language. In the book "Are We All Americans?" published recently by the editor of Le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani, it says that in Chirac's close circle there are those who see Israel as a "footnote," a transient chapter in history. According to persistent rumors, Colombani's finger is pointing at Villepin. No eyebrow was raised when observers in Paris who know the new foreign minister were asked about this.
The visit to Israel - which is arousing great curiosity at the foreign ministries in Jerusalem and Paris - will perhaps allow de Villepin to dispel the rumors and the fog surrounding the new administration's foreign policy.
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