The world’s attention is fixed on France’s presidential election, one of this year’s four most prominent elections, along with Russia, the United States and China, where power will change hands, although in a different way.
The result is still up in the air. Analysts agree that Nicolas Sarkozy is in the fight of his political life. Even with his fairly successful reforms and France’s good economic performance despite the Euro crisis, people seem to have tired of the hyperactive president’s personal style.
He has almost made a caricature of his country’s eternal quest for leadership in the world. Many are fed up with his stormy personal life and his oligarch friends. And his facile populist rhetoric, especially concerning immigration, no longer gets the applause it used to.
Russia has no reason either to want Sarkozy out of office or to pin great hopes on his victory. Russian leaders have not developed the kind of special relationship with him that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enjoyed with Gerhard Schroeder, close friend Silvio Berlusconi, or with Jacques Chirac, with whom he shared ideas about the proper European and world order.
It was probably impossible to develop a personal friendship with Sarkozy, egocentric as he is, although Russian politicians, especially Putin, understand the way he thinks. They have much in common, particularly a good grasp of business (reflected in their interest in large-scale business projects) and an ambition to affirm their country’s might (something the French call grandeur).
Sarkozy’s presidency saw two landmark events involving Russia – his contribution to ending the Russian-Georgian war and the sale of Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Both events were of historic importance.
France’s mediation between Russia and Georgia in 2008 helped Russia emerge from an acute military and political crisis with just a few scratches and without losing face. Everyone involved was lucky that France held the EU presidency at the time, considering its ardent desire to score a diplomatic and political triumph. No one knows how the war would have played out had a different country been leading Europe at the time. In fact, it was much less trouble than the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis, which occurred half a year later during the Czech presidency.
As for the Mistrals, Russian experts are still debating their value to the national defense, but all agree the political implications of that sale are hard to overstate. It was the first time that Russia agreed to purchase foreign military equipment, marking a drastic change in philosophy: a transition away from autarky in the defense sphere, which characterized the Soviet approach.
With government defense contracts and colossal spending on the rearmament of the Russian army and navy being among the most sensitive issues of Putin’s next presidency, there will surely be stiff competition between suppliers, and the role of foreign suppliers will be a major issue. France has secured itself a foothold on the market well in advance.
Russian analysts typically focus on foreign elections in terms of how they might affect relations with Russia. In Sarkozy’s case, the answer is they won’t.
Any French president will be interested in maintaining and strengthening contacts with Russia, be it Sarkozy, with his highly unusual personality, or Francois Hollande, who seems far more conventional. In fact, Moscow responded somewhat cautiously to Sarkozy’s election in 2007, viewing him as a fanatical Atlanticist. Of course, subsequent developments showed this was not the case.
This isn’t a matter of personal preference. It is a political tenet in Paris that European stability and France’s central role in it should be based on diversified policies, and Russia is one of the key components, important simply in terms of regional and global balance. Of course, other interests may be added to that core, including economic issues from natural gas to Mistrals or any other strategic goods.
Russia’s confidence in its future relations with France is also based on expectations that Europe is poised for dramatic change. Politically, it will become more fragmented, with larger nations tending to resolve their own issues relying on bilateral partners both inside and outside the EU.
Historically, France has often looked to Moscow in times of trouble, as has Germany for that matter, because Russia was the only source of potential economic and political gains in the region, and rapprochement often helped improve those countries’ positions.
Although it is difficult to imagine what Europe will be like a few years from now, this logic has always worked in different geopolitical circumstances.