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JOOST LAGENDIJK

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JOOST LAGENDIJK
April 22, 2012, Sunday

What about the new French president?

Unless French opinion polls all got it totally wrong, this weekend will be the beginning of the end for Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent French president.

He will most probably manage to survive the first round on Sunday, together with his main challenger, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, but the gap between the two has been growing over the last couple of weeks. Not one poll has indicated that Mr. Sarkozy will be able to win the second round against Mr. Hollande on May 6.

The reasons for Sarkozy’s upcoming defeat are clear. It’s the economy and his personality. Since coming to power in 2007, Sarkozy has not been able to deliver on most of his promises. Unemployment and the national debt have gone up, and France’s trade balance is negative. Together with his center-right colleague from Germany, Ms. Merkel, Sarkozy was very active in saving the euro, but the impression that most French citizens got was that Ms. Merkel called the shots, and Mr. Sarkozy was forced to go along. During the campaign the close alliance between the two most important European leaders, symbolized by the abbreviation Merkozy, was stressed less and less because Sarkozy’s strategists found out that German leadership does not go down well with chauvinistic French voters.

But it is not just failed politics or strategic mistakes that could explain Mr. Sarkozy’s bad performance. Most French simply don’t like him. They were shocked by some of his vulgar behavior, especially in the first years of his presidency, and they got fed up with his hyperactivity, jumping from one subject to another, leaving behind many people in confusion and incomprehension. It is not a coincidence that Mr. Hollande is doing so well in the polls because he is the perfect non-Sarkozy. He is dull, not very charismatic and vague on many of his plans for the future. But that is exactly what many French voters seem to want in 2012. They prefer a decent, slightly old-fashioned Mr. Normal who promises to protect France against the negative effects of globalization to a hot-tempered Mr. Speedy who has an ambiguous agenda that includes the need for unpopular reforms of a stagnating economy.

So the bets are that Hollande will be the new French president. Does it matter to Turkey? For obvious reasons it does.

We have all been able to witness the anti-Turkey Sarkozy show since 2007. For the French president bashing Turkey was not only a convenient way of attracting right-wing votes. Sarkozy has a profound ideological aversion against Turkey’s European credentials. Against the advice of many diplomats and the CEO’s of big French companies, he kept feeling the need to lash out at Turkey once in a while. Sarkozy turned France into one of the most outspoken critics of Turkey’s EU membership and that is definitively one of the reasons why, for the moment, the accession negotiations are stuck.

Nobody expects Mr. Hollande to act in the same way. During the election campaign, in which Turkey is not a big issue, he continued with the cautious approach he has been advocating for a long time. He said that, currently, Turkey was not able to meet the relevant EU conditions and was therefore not ready to join the EU in the next five years. One can agree or disagree with that but the point is that he did not use the familiar arguments that we know from Sarkozy and other anti-Turkey fundamentalists. Hollande did not claim that Turkey was not European and would therefore never be able to join the EU. It was simply not ready yet.

Looking back, we can see that Hollande was never very outspoken on Turkey’s EU membership. He was never decidedly in favor, he was never strongly against. His most constant point of criticism of Turkey has always been the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide claims. Hollande has always passionately defended the opinions of the Armenian diaspora and was one of the driving forces behind the efforts to criminalize genocide denial. If he becomes the new president, Turkey is in for a tough ride on that particular dossier. At the same time, one of his closest advisers and candidate foreign minister, Pierre Moscovici, has already indicated that a new French government would unblock the five negotiating chapters that have been frozen by Mr. Sarkozy. That would create a new momentum in Turkey-EU relations.

Nobody should expect miracles from Mr. Hollande’s presidency, but it would be very helpful if the fanatical Turkey bashing coming from Paris would stop and be replaced by a more rational approach.

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