Hollande likely to stick with Sarkozy policies on Iran, Syria, but 2012 Afghan withdrawal expected

miamiherald.com

French President-elect Francois Hollande is likely to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and won’t support U.S. efforts to deploy a missile-defense system in Europe, policy changes that would affect France’s position on key international security issues.

But the new French government, headed by a member of the Socialist Party for the first time in 17 years, is unlikely to stray far from the policies of defeated conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in areas such as Iran’s nuclear program and the conflict in Syria.

Bassma Kodmani, a leading figure in the opposition Syrian National Council, the internationally recognized umbrella group for opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said in an interview in Paris that he expected no change in French policy toward his country. Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Alain Juppe, have been among Assad’s harshest international critics, backing calls for the creation of a humanitarian corridor where Assad opponents could take shelter from Syrian military campaigns.

“Francois Hollande and other socialist leaders have been very supportive,” Kodmani said. “We can expect the next French government to be consistent.”

Hollande has made no speech since his Sunday election that touches on foreign policy matters, but during his campaign he said France would participate in military intervention in Syria “if it is done in the framework of the U.N.” – a step that would first have to win approval of the United Nations Security Council, where it would face a likely Russian veto.

Experts here saw a thaw in Iranian-French relations as unlikely under Hollande. During the campaign, Hollande called Iran’s nuclear program “a vital danger for Israel and for world peace,” and he promised no letup in French pressure on the regime in Tehran.

The French Socialists have long criticized Sarkozy’s 2009 decision to return France to the integrated military command of NATO, but military experts said they doubted Hollande would want to change that decision now. But a former key French military commander – who asked that he not be quoted by name because he did want to be involved in what he said was essentially a political matter – said he thought Hollande would likely oppose French participation in a missile defense shield for Europe.

The retired general said Hollande is expected to make that point at the NATO summit meeting scheduled for May 19 in Chicago, four days after Hollande assumes office. 

Hollande expressed reservations about missile defense during his campaign, noting on one occasion that French companies “have no opportunity to participate commercially in this program.” He also said a missile-defense system undercuts “the very idea of deterrence” – the concept that nuclear-armed nations are less likely to resort to those weapons if they themselves could be the subject of a nuclear attack.

Sarkozy already had said that French troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, a year ahead of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal. But Hollande has said he wants the 3,500 French forces there out by the end of this year.

Juppe said in April that he does not think so quick a departure could be arranged, “not as part of an organized return.” He said a withdrawal that quickly “would be a rushed escape” and “brings dishonor militarily.”

Sarkozy ordered French troops to come home early after an Afghan soldier killed four French colleagues in January. Sarkozy also ordered French troops to cease participating in combat missions. Eighty-two French soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

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