There are reasons why informed people in a far-off land like Pakistan took an intense interest in the historic French presidential election held on May 6. First, France continues to be seen as by far the most intellectually engaged western democracy that has generated seminal ideas since 1789. The 57-year-old Francois Hollande, a socialist at Elysee Palace after 17 years, may re-energise this role after the deliberate stasis promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy who aligned France closely with the global politics of the United States.

Secondly, Sarkozy was suspected of harbouring an almost neo-imperialist interest in the Arab-Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Third, there has been, in Sarkozy’s reign, a sharper division in French society in attitudes towards French citizens or residents of Muslim origin with Sarkozy reinforcing the bias. Fourth, in Pakistan’s own case, there is at stake a traditional relationship that includes important collaboration in defence-related projects.

Aspects of the recent campaign bear repetition. There was a new elan in the French left with the Front de Gauche under the highly eloquent Jean-Luc Melenchon keeping Hollande’s socialists under pressure by using the near revolutionary rhetoric of the French Communist Party and the Left Party, an almost forgotten strain of French socialism. At the other end of the spectrum, Marine Le Pen tapped into French anxieties about immigrants and globalisation to give her National Front a following never enjoyed during her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic leadership. The impact made by the two ‘extreme’ tendencies was visible in the results of the first round: Hollande at 28.6 per cent, Sarkozy at 27.1 per cent and Le Pen a surprising 17.9 per cent.

With Melenchon quickly lining up his supporters behind Hollande for the second round, there was much interest in how Sarkozy would manage to garner Le Pen’s voters. By far the most disappointing feature of Sarkozy’s campaign for the second round was the extent to which he seemed to support the National Front’s chauvinism on immigration and Muslims. Sarkozy’s party, Union for Popular Movement (UMP), has been a broad platform for conservative groups of different hues, but it has traditionally preserved its centre-right credentials. The rest of the world will watch how it redresses Sarkozy’s dangerous lurch towards the prejudices of the National Front in the presidential end-game when it campaigns for the forthcoming elections to France’s National Assembly. An early test of change by Hollande would be state intervention to reverse the trend towards Islamophobia and cultural discrimination, especially the lack of affirmative action to alleviate unemployment in the Muslim youth in the banlieues.

Hollande claims that he is not a revolutionary. A product of France’s grandes ecoles, in particular the elitist L’ecole Nationale d’Administration, he has as much claim to be part of the French establishment as anyone else. But he became a candidate of hope and change by promising major internal reforms and by challenging the Angela Merkel–Nicolas Sarkozy prescription of austerity for European economic recovery. The distinguished economist Paul Krugman sees a revolt against it and recommends a return to policies of growth highlighted by Hollande as one of his main election promises. He would be under pressure from Germany and other allies to dilute his election commitments. The battle for his soul has begun.

Global expectations

Sarkozy was keen to restore French influence in European and global affairs. Libya was his great enterprise but his semantics went beyond the cause of the Libyan people and asserted an over-ambitious French agenda for the Mediterranean, Africa and for containing Turkish influence in that region. Hollande would be keenly watched as he makes adjustments to Sarkozy’s foreign policy. France’s western allies would focus on whether he continues Sarkozy’s unprecedented commitment to Nato at its summit in Chicago in the last week of May; if he stands by his campaign promise to pull out the French contingent from Afghanistan by the end of 2012; if he continues Sarkozy’s tough stand on Iran’s nuclear programme and belligerence towards the Syrian regime. From a different world where Arabs and Muslims live, there would be expectations that Hollande will take initiatives to make the European Union address the question of Palestinian statehood and other issues in the Arab-Israel equation more fairly and equitably. A distinctive European voice on the Middle East would eventually serve Western interests better.

Some 22 years ago, I assisted then prime minister Benazir Bhutto in her meeting in Islamabad with the visiting Francois Mitterrand. We were mesmerised by his internationalism, sensitivity to Third World issues, views on North-South economic divide and, of course, his friendly attitude towards Pakistan. Not much later, as Pakistan’s ambassador to France, I cautioned my interlocutors in the French foreign office about the likelihood of a violent reaction to the cancellation of the second round of elections in Algeria. France justified its interference in Algerian affairs more in terms of realpolitik than abstract principles; the result was a disaster. What my world demands of the West is a smaller gap between high-minded rhetoric and actual policy.

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and Paris was one of the capitals where he served as Pakistan’s ambassador. 

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and Paris was one of the capitals where he served as Pakistan's ambassador.