By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 16/01/07):
When Ségolène Royal met a Hizbullah MP in Beirut last month, her relatively limited experience of foreign affairs almost caused an international incident. Ali Ammar told the French Socialists' presidential candidate that the Bush administration suffered from "unlimited dementia". He also attacked what he called modern-day "nazism" in Israel. According to the Jerusalem Post, Ms Royal was unfazed. "I agree with a lot of things you have said, notably your analysis of the United States," she replied.
Amid the ensuing outcry Ms Royal explained she was speaking only of US policy in Iraq and had not heard the MP's remarks about Israel. All the same, the unguarded exchange raised eyebrows in Paris and Tel Aviv. It also remains unclear whether Ms Royal realised that Ali Ammar was also the name by which the legendary Algerian guerrilla Ali La Pointe was known. He made his name fighting French colonial forces in the vicious battle of Algiers.
As with domestic policy, Ms Royal has so far largely avoided getting into specifics about France's future role in the world. But it is clear that she is no Angela Merkel. The German chancellor moved quickly in 2005 to mend fences with Washington flattened by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Ms Royal seems disinclined to distance herself from President Jacques Chirac's anti-Americanism.
"Since General De Gaulle, France has always embodied a certain pride and independence vis-a-vis the United States," she said in a television debate. "We absolutely cannot accept the concept of preventive war, nor the concept of good versus evil, nor disengagement in the Middle East, nor the Americans preaching economic liberalism abroad and practising protectionism at home. We cannot tolerate their refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty when they are the world's No 1 polluter."
Labour party supporters in Britain may wait a long time to hear their aspiring prime minister, Gordon Brown, give voice to such openly rebellious sentiments. Until now Nicolas Sarkozy, Ms Royal's main rival in the April-May presidential election and the champion of the French right, has also been playing it safe. Calling himself a "friend of America", Mr Sarkozy toured the US last September at the time of the 9/11 commemorations, meeting Republican luminaries. To the fury of prime minister and political rival Dominique de Villepin, and many others at home, he described French behaviour before the Iraq war as "arrogant".
But in accepting his party's presidential nomination on Sunday, Mr Sarkozy reined in his American poodle tendencies, stressing his opposition to unilateralism and the need to speak truth to power. Having supposedly secured his rightwing base, this appeared part of an overall shift to the anti-Bush political centre.
"Every time there is a presidential election, you hear the same thing," said a seasoned French political insider. "The Americans say: 'Thank goodness, now at last we are finished with that obnoxious French guy. Here's a new leader we can work with'. And every time, sooner or later, something happens and it goes 'Bouf!' and we are back where we were ... It was the same with Pompidou, with Giscard. But these days the problem is not so much between France and the US. It is the US image in Europe and the world."
If the Iraq war was the issue that "boufed" France's not-so-special relationship with Washington in Mr Chirac's second term, Iran could prove to be the next ticking timebomb, the insider said. "France's position [against military action] is clear. I think Iran may be a much more difficult decision for the next British prime minister."