What Sarkozy's win means for the Middle East

Deena Douara
6 Min Read

CAIRO: As French citizens cast their vote 53-47 in favour of presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy Sunday, they decided not only their own fate, but quite possibly the fate of millions of Arabs and Muslims, both within and outside France.

With a large North African Muslim immigrant population, a history of anti-Americanism, and influence within the EU and the UN Security Council, Arabs were keeping a close eye on the second round of French elections between socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and her opposite number on the right wing, Nicolas Sarkozy.

By most accounts, Royal was the Arab favorite to win the elections. According to a survey carried out by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, the majority of French North Africans preferred Royal (85 percent in the second round of elections).

Sarkozy, who on his last day of campaigning posed on a horse at a bull ranch in jeans and a checkered shirt, was widely viewed as the pro-American, pro-Israeli, and anti-immigrant candidate, despite his own Hungarian immigrant background.

Patrick Seale in Middle East online describes Sarkozy as having “subtle Islamophobia, reflected in part by his staunch opposition to Turkey’s entry into to the EU, his comments praising the Algerian army for “[interrupting] the democratic process in preventing the Islamic party’s ascendancy, and for his strict stance towards largely Muslim immigrants.

His shows of deference to the US included a visit in September of 2006 to Washington, criticism of French “arrogance, and what was dubbed by Royal as an apology to the US for France’s role in the animosity between the two countries.

His tough line on immigration and policing methods while interior minister was blamed by some for fueling the riots that tore through French suburbs in 2005 and the lingering animosity was evidenced by campaign posters defaced with Hitler moustaches and devil s horns.

Sarkozy plans to cut illegal immigration, and make it more difficult to bring extended immigrant families to France. He has also been criticized by some for his proposed Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.

Arabs and Muslims abroad, though, will likely be more concerned with foreign policy, specifically in dealing with such issues as Palestine and Iraq.

Only eliminated candidates spoke of establishing a Palestinian state, though Royal had spoken of heading a new EU-led Middle East peace initiative. She also suggested that the EU immediately resume financial support to the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, Sarkozy’s affinity for Israel has been clear to Arabs and Israelis alike, declaring that Israel’s security is “not negotiable. Whether or not his Jewish roots are at play, his pro-Israeli comments and first visit as his party’s leader to meet Ariel Sharon have been enough to convince Israelis to show up at the polls to vote in his favor during the first round of elections. According to the Jerusalem Post, there were 60,000 eligible French voters in Israel. One young voter in Israel was quoted by the Post as saying Yes, I am French, but I live in Israel, so all that matters to me now is how France deals with Israel and anti-Semitism. Who better to do that than Sarkozy? he asked.

After the win, Israelis and American Jews rejoiced. Israeli leader of the opposition Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu commented that “his election is a gift for Israel and Franco-Israeli relations. Newspaper Maariv declared Sarkozy a “clear friend of Israel. The American Jewish Committee reaffirmed the sentiment, saying US Jews have long admired him because of his dedication to democratic values and empathy for the threats faced by Israel.

An Al-Hayat editorial claims that Royal’s policy in the Middle East would have largely fallen in line with the status quo while Sarkozy’s would “align itself with that of the United States, which will mean, amongst other things, a more hard-line stance with respect to Hamas and Hezbollah.

With regards to the Iraq war, Sarkozy has recently called it an “historic error, and promotes sanctions to deal with Iran.

After “Chirac of Arabia, the title of a new book about Chirac and the Middle East, both candidates will be asked to fill significant Arab-friendly shoes.

“In any case, comments Al-Hayat, “the end of Chirac’s mandate marks a huge loss for the Middle East.

Eighty-five percent of eligible voters turned out for the elections May 6, marking the end of President Jacques Chirac’s 12 years in office.

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