Sarkozy's exit could transform France's world role

French President Nicolas Sarkozy played a world role that's unlikely to be followed by his successor, Francois Hollande.

Story highlights

  • Mark Jacobson: Election of Francois Hollande has global implications
  • He says new French president could accelerate withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan
  • Jacobson: France, which played leading role in Libya, could affect Syria and Iran policy
  • Hollande's success may rest on his ability to work with leaders of other nations, he says

The defeat of French President Nicholas Sarkozy at the hands of Francois Hollande has the potential to greatly affect European politics and the future of the euro, as many have noted. But the election of the first French Socialist president since 1995 also could dramatically change France's role in the world, at a particularly sensitive time.

No doubt both sides of the Atlantic will keep a close eye on the rhetoric and actions of the new French leader in the days ahead.

Almost from the outset, Hollande will be in the international spotlight, with the G-8 meeting at Camp David, Maryland, and the NATO Summit in Chicago less than two weeks away, and a G-20 meeting scheduled for June in Mexico City.

The NATO alliance faces a complex transition in Afghanistan. The international community is dealing with an increasingly untenable situation in Syria and may soon have to contemplate military action. And while the nuclear crisis with Iran is at an ebb, it is by no means over.

Mark R. Jacobson

There are already strong signals that a Hollande administration will bring more change than continuity. Sarkozy, while not a Gaullist, sought to restore French national pride based on France's role as a leader in the international community. His efforts were most notable in his participation in the NATO operations in Libya.

Hollande will inherit record debt of just over $2 trillion and a jobless rate hovering around 10%. It is unclear what price the French defense establishment will have to pay to meet the president-elect's desire to balance the budget by 2017, but with the Ministry of Defense in the midst of an internal review, French military policy will likely see changes driven by Hollande and his team.

Hollande's advisers have stated that the new leader is likely to announce an accelerated timetable for French withdrawal from Afghanistan that could bring all French troops home by the end of this year. While the operational impact of the early removal of all 3,300 French troops could be addressed with some effort, there may be greater political fallout from the French rejection of the principle of "in together, out together," especially given the lack of public support for the Afghan mission throughout Europe.

The president-elect's advisers have also claimed the new leader has reservations about Sarkozy's support of increased participation in NATO, specifically the French decision to rejoin NATO's military command structure.

Francois Hollande gives his victory speech in Tule, France, after Sunday's presidential runoff election.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, a key adviser to Hollande and a potential defense minister, is reported to have said that Hollande would demand a greater decision-making role for France within NATO. But France cannot, of course, have its cake and eat it too.

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French participation in both Afghanistan and Libya has been significant -- but equivocation regarding NATO commitments will make requests for increased authority ring hollow to other alliance members. Rather, if France is to have a greater say, then Hollande must be willing to put alliance interests ahead of national interests from time to time.

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Hollande: I've heard call for change
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Still, Hollande has also intimated that he could take a more pragmatic approach and understands that French actions could have practical and symbolic impacts that might detract from French standing in the world.

He is a career politician and no doubt understands the downside of placing France at odds with its allies unnecessarily at a time when concerted action by the trans-Atlantic powers on economic and security issues could not be more important. Indeed, President-elect Hollande's advisers say his No. 1 foreign policy priority will be helping to revive Europe's economy.

No doubt, the economy will be the driving issue during the U.S. general election, and political pundits will be considering whether the Sarkozy defeat holds lessons for voters who will go to the polls this autumn.

Just as in France, there is no shortage of voter anger with incumbents, and the low approval rating for Congress suggests we may see new faces on Capitol Hill in January.

Likewise, the United States faces important policy challenges on health care, immigration, and of course taxation and spending. But beyond that, the dynamics of French and American politics part ways.

Indeed, for the United States it will largely be the Hollande policy agenda that matters more -- not the political circumstances under which he gained office.

In a world rife with instability and faced with a fragile economic recovery, there will remain an imperative for effective alliances, forward-looking foreign policy, and strong and internationally respected leadership.

Hollande may wish to be a leader singularly focused on French and European economic needs, but success in these matters may rest on his initial ability not only to find a balance between politics and policy, but to demonstrate that he can work effectively with his fellow world leaders.