The Normal Socialist
Amb Kanwal Sibal

What does Francois Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election mean for India, Europe and the rest of the world? We know very little about him in India. Hollande’s political career has been confined to domestic politics, but without any governmental experience even though he has headed the French Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008. Foreign affairs have not been his forte so far, though now he will be deeply involved in them as the French President has traditionally a privileged role in conducting the country’s foreign policy. It is not too important if we do not know his views about India because Indo-French relations have matured sufficiently and do not await new leaders to discover mutualities of interest hitherto indiscernable. Personalities can make some difference in increasing levels of engagement with specific countries based on personal inclinations and judgment, but we may not expect notched-up attention to India from Hollande.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who had no known interest in India before becoming President, turned out to be very good for India-France relations. He consolidated the positive momentum of bilateral ties under Jacques Chirac, reinforcing French support for India’s membership of the UNSC and international civilian nuclear cooperation with India and fortifying the strategic dialogue between the two countries. India may have selected the Rafale jet fighter for technical-commercial reasons, but Sarkozy’s contribution to creating a congenial political atmosphere for the deal cannot be disregarded. Given Hollande’s background, it is enough if he maintains Sarkozy’s level of interest in India.

In the case of France the perception is that the Gaullist political spectrum is better for India than the Socialists. This is partly because, barring Mitterand, no Socialist has been president in the Vth Republic. When the socialist Lionel Jospin was Prime Minister in the “co-habitation” period from 1997-2002, it is President Chirac’s empathy for India that guided the conduct the Jospin government. Hollande’s success may not therefore automatically comfort India because an unknown entity succeeds a known one, but the strong foundations of existing bilateral ties provide sufficient reason to be at ease about the electoral result.

Naturally, we should establish contact with Hollande quickly at high level and invite him to India, with a halt by our Prime Minister in Paris on one of his westwards journeys in the interim, not to mention early visits by our Foreign and Commerce Ministers to France.

Evidently, Hollande’s election has the greatest significance for Europe because France, along with Germany, has been at the centre of the European project, and this project is in crisis, to the extent that the survival of the Euro is threatened and the weaknesses of the much-vaunted European enterprise are being openly acknowledged. Hollande is questioning the German nostrum of austerity and strict budgetary balance to address Europe’s sovereign debt malady. He is proposing instead a strategy of growth, investment and job creation that would involve higher spending and budget deficits. German Chancellor Merkel’s preference for Sarkozy over Hollande and the latter’s frontal challenge to German financial prescriptions for Europe and his intention to re-negotiate the EU’s fiscal discipline pact sets the stage for crippling policy tussles between the two key pillars of Europe. France and Germany will eventually find a modus vivendi as both have vital stakes in Europe, but any prolongation of the Eurozone crisis because of basic policy differences that Hollande is signalling would be costly for Europe and others.

The hyperactive Sarkozy, always looking for a leadership role, increased France’s visibility on the international stage. He made mediatory moves in the Russia-Georgia conflict, punched Iran diplomatically, led the military action against Libya and adopted an uncompromising language against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He stood by his obligations in Afghanistan and has been forthright on terrorism, including on Pakistan’s role.

Hollande’s more moderate personality may temper this hyper-activism. His intention to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by 2012-end may require some US-France parleys. On Islamic radicalism his stance may reflect his party’s softer view on France’s Muslim problem. His misgivings about globalization and unfair external competition may incite more protectionist tendencies in Europe which worry India and others. His lack of enthusiasm for nuclear energy may impact on the scope of Indo-French plans in this area.

Hollande has won as expected, but with a margin narrower than anticipated. Sarkozy lost more because of his personality flaws than his performance failures. Hollande will be, as he says, a more “normal’ president.

Published in India Today 11th May 2012

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