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Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Candidate Abroad, or an Innocent Abroad?

December 6, 2006
Memo From France
A Candidate Abroad, or an Innocent Abroad?
PARIS, Dec. 5 - The Middle East can be a dangerous place for the diplomatic

So perhaps it was inevitable that Ségolène Royal, the Socialist nominee in
next April's presidential election, would stumble when she ventured to the
region on her first foreign trip since she was chosen as her party's candidate
two weeks ago.

The five-day trip to Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel
was intended to counter criticism even within her own party that she lacks
foreign policy experience. Instead, she opened herself up to a new wave of
criticism from the French right that she has a long way to go to prove her
credentials in foreign affairs.

But Ms. Royal also appeared to gain support from the Israeli leadership, which
ignored her missteps and focused on her tight embrace. She staked out a
position as a staunch defender of Israel, supporting its right to construct a
security barrier on the West Bank and opposing any nuclear power program,
however peaceful, in Iran.

In one sense, she seems to be trying to establish her independence from the
traditional Arab-leaning foreign policy of the French left, a strategy that
may backfire with her most fervent supporters.

She also seems to be portraying herself as even more pro-Israeli than Interior
Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to become the nominee of the
governing Union for a Popular Movement and has vowed to promote Israel's
security interests and halt Iran's nuclear ambitions if he becomes president.

"You have in front of you the only French political figure who has clearly
taken a stand against Iran's access to civil nuclear power," Ms. Royal told
reporters on Monday at a news conference in Jerusalem. "This will be my
position if I am elected president of the republic."

That stand, which she first expressed in a debate during the primary campaign,
is even more rigid than that of the Bush administration, which accepts the
completion of Iran's first nuclear reactor by Russia. Even Israel does not
call for a halt to the plant, in Bushehr, a southern port.

On Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, accused her of
contradicting official French policy on Iran and undermining the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty, which allows signatories like Iran to develop nuclear
energy for peaceful purposes. "To question Iran's right to obtain civilian
nuclear energy, and I stress civilian, as Ms. Royal has done, amounts to
calling into question the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been
signed by almost every country in the world," Mr. Douste-Blazy said at a news

As for Ms. Royal's stance on Israel's construction of a security barrier, she
characterized its route as a "problem" but otherwise supported the project.

"When this is necessary for security, I believe that construction is without
doubt justified," she said.

She also seemed to be learning along the way. As she embarked on her trip, she
said it was important to "talk to everyone." By the time she arrived in
Israel, however, she declared that there should be no contact with Hamas, the
militant governing Palestinian party.

In Lebanon, she called for an end to flights by Israeli warplanes over French
peacekeeping positions in southern Lebanon. By the time she got to Israel, she
said the ones that were still being conducted were justified.

Despite her lack of foreign policy expertise, Ms. Royal is not lacking in
confidence. In Beirut on Friday, she offered to play the role of "facilitator"
to resolve the crisis in Lebanon. And at the news conference in Jerusalem on
Monday, which followed a 45-minute meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,
she boasted, "The way in which I was welcomed was exceptional."

Yet her bravado could not disguise her gaffes early in the visit when she met
with Lebanese parliamentary deputies, among them Ali Ammar, a member of the
pro-Syrian, Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

"The Nazism that has spilt our blood and usurped our independence and our
sovereignty is no less evil than the Nazi occupation of France," Mr. Ammar
reportedly told Ms. Royal. He also attacked the "unlimited dementia of the
American administration" and called Israel the "Zionist entity."

Ms. Royal replied that she agreed "with a lot of things that you have said,
notably your analysis of the United States." She defended Israel, calling it
not an "entity" but a sovereign state that had the right to security. She did
not comment on the Nazi reference.

Questioned by journalists about her criticism of the United States, she
clarified her position, saying she had only meant to be critical of American
policy in Iraq, not the "the wider policies of the United States."

Asked a day later about the Nazi remark, she said she had not heard it, saying
it was a problem of interpretation. "If that comparison had been made, we
would have left the room," she said.

Her performance gave ample ammunition to the French right.

François Fillon, Mr. Sarkozy's chief political adviser, chastised Ms. Royal
for meeting with a representative of Hezbollah, while the defense minister,
Michèle Alliot-Marie, who may challenge Mr. Sarkozy for the nomination on the
right, suggested that Mr. Royal was endangering French troops and residents in

On Monday, Mr. Sarkozy himself entered the fray. "Ms. Royal has triggered a
very serious controversy, and I am not sure that this one was worth it," he
said. "The situation there is already extremely complicated. So it is
necessary to act with great moderation, with a great sense of responsibility,
of skill."

Ms. Royal has refused to accept criticism. "I have committed neither a faux
pas nor a gaffe," she said, adding that "nobody" would stop her from
"continuing to talk with democratically elected representatives."

It is too early to know whether Ms. Royal's debut in the Middle East signifies
"her audacity or her flightiness," a foreign affairs expert, Daniel Vernet,
wrote in Le Monde.

The more important question is how the voters will rate her performance.

"She wanted to show that she had the guts, the gumption and the stature of
starting her foreign excursions with the hardest one," said François
Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "How
that will play out with the electorate is an unknown at this point. Her lack
of experience really shows."

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