Under Charles de Gaulle, French foreign policy as seen from Washington had a "nuisance value" at a time when France's domestic choices were much more in tune with those of her allies and neighbors. Under François Mitterrand, the radical nature of the domestic changes in France (e.g., nationalization of major industries and banks, decentralization of the administration of the country) have virtually changed French foreign policy into a reassuring value. At a time when pacifism is sweeping Northern Europe, and the Federal Republic of Germany in particular, France, with her firmness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, her nuclear striking force, her strong defense budget and weak pacifist movement, seems an oasis of continuity.

Is this optimism justified? Is "changing France still steadfast?" Can France reconcile the cost of her domestic policies to the ambitions of her foreign policy, or will the radical nature of her internal changes ultimately affect the very essence of foreign policy?


If we can speak of continuity in Mitterrand's foreign policy, it is a continuity that has more in common with de Gaulle's policies than with Georges Pompidou's or Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's. For Pompidou, France was to become a major industrial power. For Giscard d'Estaing, she was to hold her place among the advanced countries in the world. Rejecting these legitimate but highly unromantic ambitions, Mitterrand shares de Gaulle's faith in France's special mission in the world. He even transcends it by fusing France's destiny with that of socialism. In his inaugural speech at the Elysée Palace, Mitterrand set the tone for his foreign policy by stressing that a great nation should entertain only noble projects and that France should "enlighten humanity's progress."

De Gaulle guided France's destiny within a classical realist vision of a balance of power concerned only with nation-states. As the spiritual inheritor of those earlier illustrious socialists Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum, Mitterrand's ultimate goal is to rehabilitate socialism in France and in the world. In France the socialist ideal had always been defeated, both domestically and internationally, either by the ultimate failure of the socialist-communist Popular Front in the 1930s or by the excessive watering down of socialist principles under socialist leader Guy Mollet and others during the Fourth Republic. Hence Mitterrand's ambition to find a third way beyond the Russian interpretation of Marxism and its totalitarian consequences and the inherent limits of an excessively moderate Northern social democracy, which leaves the free market economy essentially untouched.

Mitterrand's idealism and internationalism have replaced de Gaulle's nationalism and Machiavellianism in structuring France's international mission. In American terms, France is in the midst of Wilsonianism. But whereas Wilson's ambition was to make the world safe for democracy, the new Socialist government, referring to Pascal, describes its moral aim as the need to make the just strong. (Que le juste soil fort.) It remains to be seen whether these high hopes will degenerate into a Carter-like failure. Mitterrand, however, is not Jimmy Carter. Thirty-five years of being constantly active in French political life and major international exposure during the past ten years as a leading member of the Socialist International have given him a healthy dose of realism.

It is from such a combination of idealism and realism that French foreign policy draws its guiding principles: firmness toward the Soviet Union, generosity toward the Third World, ambiguity toward the United States. These three dimensions have always been present in French foreign policy in varying degrees. The greater intensity with which all three dimensions are being pursued at the same time is what gives French foreign policy under Mitterrand its "new look."


Giscard d'Estaing was anti-communist at home and soft on the Soviet Union. Mitterrand has brought Communist ministers into his government for a mixture of historical and tactical reasons but is firmly anti-Soviet. In the last six months of his mandate, Giscard had slightly toughened his position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, but his May 1980 Warsaw trip to meet with Leonid Brezhnev after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which haunted him during his campaign, remains symbolic of his septennat. Mitterrand and his Foreign Minister, Claude Cheysson, have lifted this veil of ambiguity by stressing unequivocally the unacceptability of a Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. Shielding himself behind France's nonparticipation in NATO's military wing, Giscard adopted an attitude of benign neglect toward the quarrel between Europe and America over placing medium-range missiles in Western Europe. Mitterrand, on the other hand, has come out strongly in support of the West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, in denouncing the Soviet buildup in medium-range missiles, thus approving the NATO decision of 1979 to counter the Soviets with U.S. missiles on European soil. But Mitterrand has not abandoned his commitment to disarmament and arms control; he simply feels that such negotiations can only take place once a balance of power has been restored in Europe.

This new realism can be explained at many levels. France's hard line vis-à-vis the Soviet Union can appear as a tactical maneuver to counterbalance the negative impact, for France's allies, of Communists in the French government, of radical domestic changes, and even of France's strong pro-Third World commitments. Such an explanation, however, does not do justice to Mitterrand. In his latest book, Ici et Maintenant, written before his election, Mitterrand seems well aware of the changing balance of power in Europe.1

De Gaulle in the 1960s, fully protected by the American nuclear umbrella, sought to maximize France's diplomatic margin within the alliance by seeking an independent line on East-West issues. Such a policy presupposed two conditions that are no longer present today: the undisputed strategic superiority of the United States and that France was the only nation to practice Gaullism. Now that the Soviet Union seems to have a strategic edge and the Federal Republic of Germany, in its identity crisis, is flirting with Gaullism and pacifism, Mitterrand the realist is aware of France's new responsibilities.

France's toughness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union can also be explained for ideological reasons. As a disciple of Auguste Comte's technocratic rationalism, Giscard d'Estaing could delude himself into thinking that the ideological competition with the Soviet system could be downplayed. The belief in the possibility of a common language is probably what led him to meet with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw, in May 1980-and made him unaware that the "medium was the message" as far as the Soviets were concerned, who exploited his trip to Poland well beyond any benefits he may have obtained. Mitterrand's long familiarity with the French Communist Party as an enemy or ally gives him no illusions about the nature of the Soviet regime and the power of its ideology, which he seeks to combat by proposing an alternative road to socialism. The Socialists also have one advantage over their conservative predecessors in dealing with Moscow. They have a considerably weaker Communist Party (15 percent of the electorate) to live with and, possessing their own legitimacy vis-à-vis the Left, their hands are freer to deal with Moscow as they wish.

Mitterrand is further helped by a changed cultural climate. During the cold war, the French intelligentsia was both anti-American and largely pro-Soviet, at a time when the Fourth Republic was a faithful ally of the United States. In the 1970s, French intellectuals under the impact of the Gulag became fiercely anti-Soviet, at a time when Giscard cultivated détente.2 The growing Soviet strategic arsenal and its military expansionism in the Third World have brought political positions somewhat closer to intellectual stances.

Nor is France's firmness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union offset by a strong pacifist movement, whose current weakness goes beyond the fact that NATO's medium-range missiles were never intended for French soil. French attachment to the notion of national independence and a strong state, the lack of Protestant pacifism and of a strong romantic ecological movement help explain why, during the peace weekend of October 24-25 in Brussels, London, Rome and Paris, Paris had by far the smallest number of demonstrators, most of whom came from Communist-inspired organizations.

One can even wonder whether these pacifist tendencies are not in part due to the perverse effects of NATO on the notion of a national defense effort, NATO's existence reinforcing an already blurred sense of national military responsibility or even identity. France being outside NATO had to feel responsible for herself.


Mitterrand's foreign policy is at its most Wilsonian on North-South issues, even though this is the realm in which there is the greatest continuity with his predecessors. Since de Gaulle, France has had a growing concern for Third World countries and development problems. Giscard d'Estaing came to power promoting the idea of a North-South dialogue and of a New International Economic Order. France's "Third Worldism" has always contained three distinct strains in varying degrees. The first strain is the product of raison d'état in the belief that France has to play an important role in the Third World for political as well as economic reasons. Mitterrand's speech in Mexico and his statements at Cancún stem directly from de Gaulle's Phnom Penh speech in 1966 in which he denounced America's military approach to the Third World as dangerous and mistaken. This Third Worldism of the brain is complemented by a Third Worldism of the heart, with its emphasis on the moral imperative to come generously to the aid of the poorest.

A third element is less idealistic and is directly linked to a latent anti-Americanism, ready to criticize American imperialism in the Third World. If under President Mitterrand the raison d'état still plays a role, the generous aspect and the anti-American aspect have clearly been reinforced. Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson represents the "generous wing" with his well-known, long-term, deep commitment to the Third World, which often makes him speak openly in an undiplomatic manner. For Cheysson, Third World development constitutes the "new frontier" of the industrialized countries, and the key to their economic growth. The left wing of the Socialist Party represents this anti-American strain, rendered more significant by the romantic presence at the Elysée of Régis Debray, a follower of Ché Guevara in the late 1960s, who actually spent three years in a Bolivian jail. This anti-American dimension is clearly reinforced by the Reagan Administration's simplistic approach to North-South problems. France's Third World approach is based on principles that are perfectly antithetical to America's. Mitterrand and Cheysson have repeatedly declared that North-South problems are more important than East-West problems and must be dissociated from an East-West framework. Ultimately, if France is West vis-à-vis the East, Socialist France wishes to be South vis-à-vis the West.

It is unclear whether France will be able to carry out a global North-South policy beyond generous declarations of intentions or whether she will continue her regional policies with a different tone. Given the nature of the problems involved and France's limited margin of maneuver, change may be less significant than originally envisioned by the Socialists. This is particularly true in Africa where socialist France is caught between two contradictory objectives: the need to differentiate herself from Giscard d'Estaing's policy with its neo-paternalistic taint; and the need to reassure all those countries whose stability depends on French political, economic and all too often military support, in what can be considered as the last French sphere of influence in the world.

France's new guiding principles in Africa can be summarized as follows: a desire to widen French presence beyond francophone Africa, an attempt to de-emphasize military aid while stressing the more "pure" economic and cultural aspects, and an intent to condemn South Africa more strongly. These principles are new only in their formulation. Giscard d'Estaing had also pursued an active, if unsuccessful, policy beyond francophone Africa. Sensitive to Nigerian criticism and fearing a direct military confrontation with Libya in Chad, Giscard took French troops out of Chad, a move that was criticized in France and in some African countries. It is also important to stress that criticism of South Africa already existed under Giscard, who stopped the sale of arms to Pretoria.

There will be inner limits to French African policy if only because economic aid will be necessarily limited, her allies will expect military protection, and ties with South Africa will remain exceedingly complex. A lack of available funds may force the French to concentrate on some countries whose political stability, given their traditional links to France, is important for the maintenance of what amounts to a sphere-of-influence policy. Unfortunately for the idealistic component, these countries are generally not the poorest. Libya's President Qaddafi's growing ambitions in Africa are already leading France toward increasing logistical aid to the regime of Goukouni Oueddei in Chad. The recent withdrawal of Libyan troops, if it is confirmed, is unquestionably a success of French diplomacy. It remains to be seen whether Qaddafi's withdrawal is anything more than tactical, whether a joint African force is enough to preserve a fragile equilibrium, and whether French forces will not once again have to intervene in Chad. France has also given tacit support to the military coup d'état in the Central African Republic that has ousted the fragile regime of President David Dacko.

On the Middle East, change is more significant even if it too must be qualified. The new Socialist government has brought to the Middle East a more emotional-some would say a more balanced-approach. Socialist emotions, however, run both ways and not just on behalf of Israel. One can even speak of a generation gap within the Socialist Party. Those over 50, and therefore Mitterrand, still see Israel as a pioneer state and as France's ally throughout the Fourth Republic, especially during the Suez crisis. French Socialist links with Israel have been kept alive through frequent contacts inside the Socialist International. This may explain the new support for the Camp David accords, the denunciation of the Arab boycott of French firms dealing with Israel, and a warmer tone toward the Israelis. For a younger generation of Socialists, particularly in the left wing of the party, emotions are invested in the Palestinian cause in a pro-revolutionary fashion reminiscent of 1968. This pro-Palestinian position is also in greater harmony with the party's general Third World orientation, and accounts for the greater recognition of the Palestinian right to a state.

France's position in the Middle East is objectively limited by the international framework, and the two antithetical currents inside the Socialist Party may also ultimately restrict her realm of action. One must acknowledge, however, that by offering to place French troops in a peacekeeping force in Sinai (as she did previously in Lebanon, at that time under a United Nations flag), France is playing a positive and practical role.

France's policy vis-à-vis Southeast Asia is not very well defined yet, but continuity seems to prevail.3 The Indian card played by Giscard d'Estaing, who wanted to strengthen ties with the emerging industrial power of the area, is being pursued with greater intensity. India serves almost as a "two-way plug": a conveyor belt to Moscow, while at the same time New Delhi's regional fears of growing Soviet strength in that part of the world are encouraged. France and the European Community, by coming to the support of Indian neutralism, hope to make it truly neutral. The problems besetting that policy are bound to be the same as under Giscard d'Estaing. Will France be able to translate a close political vision with India into an ambitious policy of economic and cultural exchanges?

In Vietnam, France is caught between two policies. One derives from French concerns over human rights, whereby France should therefore set a normative example and condemn unequivocally Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. In contrast, the reappearance of a neo-Gaullist tendency to think in global historical terms pushes France in the direction of accepting mere autonomy of Cambodia as part of a greater Indochina dominated by Vietnam. This analysis, which corresponds, in fact, to the situation in the field, is doubly limited today in its political consequences by the lack of flexibility of the Vietnamese vis-à-vis the French, as well as by the knowledge a growing number of people have of the totalitarian essence of the Vietnamese regime.

France's policy toward China also displays continuity. But it is largely the continuity of a vacuum. The Chinese do not appreciate the presence of Communist ministers in the French government. France's reluctance to discuss with China the topic that preoccupies them most, i.e., the ways to counter Soviet expansionism in the world, is the core of the Chinese frustration with France.

It is in Latin America, the region in which France's political and economic influence and military intervention have been minimal-if one leaves aside Napoleon III's unfortunate Mexican adventure-that the changes in French foreign policy have been most significant, to the evident displeasure of the Reagan Administration. Mitterrand has essentially picked up where de Gaulle left off in his political approach to Latin America, benefiting like de Gaulle from France's previously intense cultural influence in the continent. The recent French-Mexican declaration of support for revolutionary forces in El Salvador illustrates the new added ideological flavor of France's position, but it also reflects President Mitterrand's well-known cultural affinity with Latin America as a whole through its literature, which may be the basis of his rather vague concept of "Latinité." This declaration seems to have stemmed from a Mexican and not a French initiative. One is therefore left with the impression, given the fact that it was denounced by nine Latin American countries, among them moderates such as Venezuela, that France was ultimately used by the Mexicans.

Socialist France can express her ideological and cultural emotions in Latin America all the more freely since her direct interests in the region are ultimately limited-in clear contrast with America's. Despite the vastly different meaning Latin America holds for Mitterrand's France and Reagan's America, one can wonder whether these two countries do not share opposing illusions, but illusions nonetheless, over the fate of Central America, El Salvador being a test case. The United States has basked in the illusion that there could be an easy military answer to the revolutionary situation in El Salvador, the French that there could exist an ultimately successful "socialist way" (à la Allende) between the right-wing Chilean Pinochet and the Castro "scenarios." The Americans are slowly coming to grips with a far more complex reality in El Salvador. Will Nicaragua's troubling evolution toward the Cuban model make the French question their analysis?

In conclusion, one has to ask oneself if, on the set of foreign policy issues that most divide them, France and the United States are not divided by a common assumption: that the East-West battle will be decided in the South. But they differ strikingly in their strategies. The United States gives total priority to building a strategic consensus of regimes around the notion that the Soviet Union is their greatest threat, a policy whose limitations were clearly exposed in the Middle East, while France emphasizes the support to revolutionary forces that would otherwise go automatically into the Soviet camp.


Mitterrand's moralistic Gaullism can only clash with Reaganism. For the first time in the history of the Atlantic Alliance, internal economic and social choices in the United States and France may add an ideological dimension to the classic "troubled partnership." Americans should not delude themselves into thinking that the new Socialist Party is the old Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) with its moderate Atlanticism and its reassuring social reformism in new dress. The new French Socialist Party was created in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War, at a time when the United States was considered the primary threat to peace in the world. It is the irony of history that the Socialist Party should come to power ten years later at a time when Kabul and Warsaw have replaced Hanoi, Haiphong and Santiago as international symbols, thereby shifting the satanic mantle onto the Soviet Union. In the minds of Socialist leaders, however, and especially Mitterrand, Soviet military and American economic imperialisms are equally dangerous. Out of realism, one has to denounce Soviet military imperialism, but in ideological terms the emotional "imperialism" which holds the Socialist Party together is American economic and cultural imperialism. Such an analysis finds some confirmation in the new U.S. policy toward Central America and southern Africa. (Incidentally, such an assessment finds a natural ally among the Gaullists.) This complex link to America goes well beyond the realm of international relations. It lies at the very core of France's image of herself, her glorious past, and her complex relation to modernity, and on all these counts the Socialists, with their explicit attachment to traditional rural France, do not necessarily represent the most avant-garde position.4

Fundamental political choices may also be pushed to extremes both in France and in America by a conservative U.S. Senate and a Socialist French National Assembly rediscovering the pleasure of parliamentary power. Each country's ideological attachment to its new economic philosophy, when added to the objective gravity of the international economic crisis, can only lead to many serious clashes; French criticism of high American interest rates only prefigures this state of affairs. The high risks of failure of both economic models-Reaganism and Mitterrandism-may also pave the way for more nationalistic and aggressive attitudes. This problem also has a European dimension for France.

France's new orientations vis-à-vis Europe are clearly pro-European. The presence of convinced Europeans in the Cabinet such as Finance Minister Jacques Delors, a former close adviser of Gaullist Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, and Cheysson, a former European High Commissioner, also constitutes an encouraging sign. Enjoying a new conception of her relations with her partners, France under Mitterrand favors a greater "community approach" and refuses any directory type of formula preferred by Giscard. The Paris-Bonn "axis" is therefore rejected in principle, to the satisfaction of the British, though the privileged relationship between France and the Federal Republic is, in fact, still a reality. Apart from formulas such as the need for the constitution of a "European social space" or a more positive attitude toward European institutions, it remains to be seen whether the new internationalism and pro-European stance of the Socialist government will not prove as damaging for Europe as de Gaulle's nationalist approach. France's domestic economic choices are isolating her from the rest of the community. New economic pressures may make her less willing to heed all the restrictive measures of the Community. The case of Socialist Greece, whose attitudes are anti-European and deeply jingoistic, cannot be taken as a prefiguration of a socialist wave that would unify Western Europe.


Ultimately, not only the success or failure but the very nature of French foreign policy will be determined by the outcome of Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy's economic program. The eventual failure of Socialist France to successfully reduce inflation and unemployment would not only affect the credibility of French foreign policy, but would alter its content. Arms control and disarmament could become ways of reducing a defense budget as well as fulfilling a socialist ideal.

What is at stake is considerable and not only for France. To balance realism on East-West questions and idealism on North-South issues may prove less easy than it appears now. But the problem is more fundamental. Can the Socialist government succeed in formulating a coherent foreign policy unified by a moral and realistic vision of the world, grounded on social consensus and a restored economy at home? Or will the equilibrium between the will to effect deep changes at the domestic level and to maintain a reassuring continuity in foreign policy prove more difficult to achieve than it now seems?

In the context of Europe's changing political configuration, whether through Poland's revolutionary struggles or West Germany's pacifist tendencies, the issue of change or continuity in French foreign policy will prove to be essential. So far, an indisputable tendency to radicalization at home has not really left its mark on France's global foreign policy. Let us hope for the future of Europe that this will continue to be so.

1 François Mitterrand, Ici et Maintenant, Paris: Fayard, 1980.

2 Pierre Hassner, "Western European Perceptions of the U.S.S.R.," Daedalus, Winter 1979.

3 Cf. Jean-Luc Domenach, "Le dossier asiatique de la politique française," Esprit, décembre 1981.

4 Cf. the forthcoming article of Diana Pinto, "Le Socialisme et les Intellectuels: Le Conflit Caché," Le Débat, janvier 1982.



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  • Dominique Moïsi is Associate Professor at the University of Paris X, and Assistant Director of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Paris.
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