Why Foreign Policy Counted for Zero in the French Election

Foreign policy, quasi absent from the presidential campaign in France, is catching up with newly elected French president Francois Hollande very quickly. A few hours after his inauguration on Tuesday May 15th, Hollande is right off to Berlin, will meet with President Barack Obama on May 18th on his way to the G8 summit in Camp David May 18-19th, and then attend the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21st. Talk about baptism by fire.

With so much on the agenda right from the starting block and a country still proud of its international activism and intent on punching above its weight in world affairs, it is all the more puzzling that foreign policy was forgotten in the campaign. In the televised debate four days before the second round of voting, the candidates discussed foreign policy only in the last 10 minutes of a nearly three-hour exercise. Why was foreign policy off the table during the presidential campaign? Why was incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy not able to capitalize on his handling of foreign policy over the past five years?

First, an issue needs to be reflecting a cleavage in order to emerge as central in the electoral debate. As far as we know, given the candidates' silence on foreign policy, both Hollande and Sarkozy shared roughly similar visions on foreign affairs. The only apparent elements of discord were the date of the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan (late 2012 vs. late 2013) and France's full rejoining of NATO's integrated military command in 2009, which Hollande said he disagreed with, but would not reverse.

Still, Sarkozy could have run on a platform highlighting his foreign policy successes, to be contrasted with his opponent's lack of international experience. Indeed, over a year ago, Sarkozy tried briefly to refocus his boundless energy on foreign policy and leave domestic issues to his Prime Minister, making him an easy focal point for popular discontent. Yet this strategy did not work because Sarkozy could not help himself from being the hyperactive president that he was, meddling in all kinds of domestic policies. But could this have been a winning strategy if he had stuck to this plan?

Probably not. To be sure, Sarkozy and France were on all fronts over the past five years. From Georgia to Libya, from the EU institutional crisis to the Euro crisis, from NATO to the G20, Sarkozy's hyperactive and ubiquitous foreign policy put France back at the center of the action. But voters have short memories. What may have passed for foreign policy successes initially were simply forgotten come the election. Who remembers the Bulgarian nurses whom Sarkozy's ex-wife, Cecilia, triumphantly returned home from Libya in 2007? Which voter today remembers Sarkozy's handling of the Georgia crisis in 2008? Who remembers Ingrid Betancourt, the French hostage freed from the FARC guerillas in 2008? Who remembers that Sarkozy was one of the main instigators of the G20 in its modern incarnation after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008?

Moreover, what was initially cast as foreign policy successes became subject to a different interpretation as time went by. Take Libya. Sarkozy may have been sitting on cloud nine at the time of the 2011 Libya intervention, when French flags were being flown all over Benghazi and the country got rid of its dictator, in part because of French activism. But fast forward one year later, in the context of a presidential contest fought over issues of borders, immigration, and the compatibility of Islam with French identity. Is it that clear that the Libyan operation was a success after all? Domestic judgments of the outcome have shifted -- the support and pride in France's return to the center of the international action a few months ago have waned. Instead, French analysts and voters are questioning whether it was all worth it and whether the change and instability was not ultimately for the worse. Add to this the rumors (unsubstantiated for now) that Ghaddafi may have secretly supported Sarkozy's presidential bid in 2007, and Libya could no longer count as a plus in Sarkozy's appeals to the public.

Furthermore, it was inconvenient for Sarkozy to run on a platform emphasizing heavily his foreign policy successes because it proved difficult, ex-post, to define a coherent "Sarkozy doctrine" except for opportunism, hyperactivity, and impulsive reactions to the crisis of the day.

But the true reason for Sarkozy's inability to capitalize more on foreign policy is that, as we already knew, foreign policy successes do not pay in domestic politics in times of economic crisis -- failures, yes, but successes, no. In the end, when times are tough, voters always cast their ballot on economic and social issues, not foreign policy ones.