Sarkozy's Iron Lady

Meet Michèle Alliot-Marie, France's right-wing, rugby-loving new foreign minister.

International diplomacy can be a rough-and-tumble world, ripe with jujitsu fake-outs, illegal tackles, and plenty of grappling in the scrum. In the end, it all proved too much for the left-wing humanitarian Bernard Kouchner, whose appointment as President Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign minister started out with so much promise, but ended up with him watching from the sidelines. So perhaps it makes sense that Kouchner's newly-appointed replacement, Michèle Alliot-Marie, is a devout student of rugby.

The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. "I think that I'd still be able to make a pass," she noted. Given her steely demeanor -- she often comes across as downright unbreakable -- it isn't impossible to imagine MAM taking a few hits on the rugby pitch. But perhaps it's her innate sense of the game's rules (her father was an international rugby referee) that has served her so well in the subtler but often much dirtier game of politics.

Alliot-Marie has embraced another pastime traditionally seen as the exclusive domain of men. She was France's first woman to head a major political party -- the conservative Rally for the Republic that oversaw the reelection of President Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was later folded into the Union for a Popular Movement that drove Nicolas Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential candidacy.

She has also shattered a number of other glass ceilings. With her new appointment, plus other stints as head of the defense, justice and interior ministries, she has scored the first ever ministerial "grand slam," overseeing all four of the big-power ministries. In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 11th most powerful woman on Earth. With France now assuming the rotating presidency of the G-20 and Sarkozy looking to the international arena to restore his much-tarnished brand at home, Alliot-Marie's profile is likely to rise to even greater heights.

On Nov. 17, Sarkozy's third and most explicitly conservative government held its inaugural Council of Ministers, the first productive gathering of his new government. Chosen with an eye focused on presidential elections less than 18 months from now, Sarkozy has sought to project a new vitality, but the French are skeptical of his latest reshuffle. Approximately two-thirds of the electorate lacks confidence in the new government out of the gate, and nearly nine in 10 believe that Sarkozy's policies will continue unchanged. Yet a majority -- 53 percent -- continues to have a positive view of Alliot-Marie, who has notably avoided implication in an array of scandals and court investigations that dogged Chirac and Sarkozy.

Alliot-Marie has never shied away from controversy and has made a notable impact at each of her previous appointments. As minister of youth and sports in the 1990s, she pushed through a law that permits the banning of violent sports fans from stadiums, a move that didn't endear her to some feisty soccer-loving far-right supporters. As defense minister, she proved popular in her numerous on-the-ground visits to French troops in hot spots from West Africa to Lebanon to Afghanistan. More concretely, she further professionalized the French military via reforms (and ended the draft) and she diplomatically fended off pressure from Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take part in the early military stabilization of Iraq (in accordance with France's policy) while retaining good personal relations with Rumsfeld and overseeing French military involvement in Afghanistan. More recently, at the Interior Ministry, she consolidated intelligence bodies to create a sort of French FBI, though with France facing repeated terrorist threats in recent months, the jury is still out on the impact. At the Justice Ministry, she introduced legislation that effectively banned the Muslim veil and other forms of facial covering in public settings.

Core conservatives, who are uncomfortable with the president's frenetic -- many say erratic -- political methods, find Alliot-Marie to be refreshingly reliable and satisfyingly unsurprising, and rock-solid on the values that they care about. (It hasn't hurt that she can be a strongly partisan female political voice. Of mercurial 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, she said, "We don't need someone who changes ideas as often as she changes her skirt.")

And yet, as a prominent minister, she has tended to serve the beliefs of her presidential or prime ministerial bosses, rather than administering any broad political vision of her own. In fact, most French people would be hard-pressed to discern her personal political views on key issues like Europe, Islam, and the cultural integration of immigrants. Even on the issue of the trans-Atlantic relationship, on which she is more closely associated with former Chirac's multipolar vision than Sarkozy's more U.S.-friendly one, she has avoided any public scrapes with her current boss. It is unlikely that she will bend French foreign policy to fit her beliefs. As is her habit, she is more likely to implement the key foreign-policy positions that Sarkozy has already been promoting, but with greater reliability and discipline than her predecessor.

This doesn't mean that Alliot-Marie doesn't have opinions on policy; she just doesn't express them in public or in the media, unlike many of her colleagues. This might have to do with her discreet vision of her role, as well as her relationship with the president. "We have known each other for a very long time, we have shared a part of our political journey," she said of Sarkozy in Paris Match magazine a year ago while serving as his minister of justice. "He has never lied to me, never dissimulated anything at all. Me neither. I am a loyal woman. When we have things to say to each other, we say them. That concerns us and no one else."

It's no surprise then that MAM has been compared to her U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton. The comparison is in some ways apt, though she bears a greater resemblance to Clinton as the loyal, tough-talking, get-things-done secretary of state than the combative, opinionated presidential candidate.

If Alliot-Marie's ascendancy is a victory of technique and discretion over policy vision, it will likely come as a welcome relief for a broad swath of the French electorate. The hope is that e's sturdy presence in the government will act as a stabilizing force, especially for a Foreign Ministry that has seen much of its influence and power usurped by other parts of the government in recent years. Her predecessor, Kouchner, who was cherry-picked from the Socialist Party to give the government the appearance of political inclusion, never had the president's trust.

In reality, many if not most key foreign-policy issues were run out of an informal political cell in the Élysée presidential palace, leaving Kouchner as little more than a symbol of political inclusiveness, sometimes even robbing him of his role as foreign-policy mouthpiece. (Sensitive missions involving the Middle East and Africa were handled by the secretary-general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant; Sarkozy's diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, focused on the United States and China.) It is likely that MAM's reputation for protecting her policy turf will soon be put to the test.

While MAM has never played up her remarkable rise, Sarkozy has proudly trumpeted the impressive inclusion of women in his various governments, whether they were well-suited to their positions or not. He has since let go of prominent ones, like his flashy and less-than-diplomatic former justice minister Rachida Dati, and the very popular but insolent young secretary of state for sports, Rama Yade. Alliot-Marie, in her unsentimental way, set herself apart from such appointees when she commented: "There is nothing worse than having a woman in a position that she doesn't succeed in; it is prejudicial for all women."

Still, whether she wants to admit it or not, Alliot-Marie does check a number of political boxes for the ever-tactical Sarkozy, who needs to bolster his support with doubting Gaullist traditionalists and others who now fondly recall Chirac. (France is in the grip of a serious round of Chirac-nostalgia with polls regularly showing him as the most popular living politician in the country.) MAM too feels this fondness: indeed she only got into national politics when "family friend," Chirac, suggested the idea. For three decades he has been a key political mentor. She was so closely associated with the former president, who long had fraught relations with Sarkozy, that she mulled running as his Gaullist heir in the 2007 presidential campaign. Her decision not to run -- in addition to her professionalism and conservative bona fides -- has helped to keep her in the Council of Ministers without pause under two presidents. Sarkozy's decision to was doubly tactical; he has kept a potentially potent conservative competitor in the fold and simultaneously comforted members of his party who had expressed unease with the execution of his foreign-policy agenda under Kouchner.

The real question is whether MAM's clout will allow her to maneuver more freely than Kouchner, who never fully filled his ministerial shoes. There are signs that she will. Sarkozy's new government has restored some of the symbolic strength of the Foreign Ministry and appointed no fewer than three ministers to the Quai d'Orsay as part of the government reshuffle (Alliot-Marie at the top; the youthful former government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez responsible for European affairs; and Henri de Raincourt, who will oversee international cooperation).

But whether Alliot-Marie will be permitted to truly oversee policy is still an open question. It could be a smart move: She brings to the job a rare practical depth and breadth of field from decades of experience with security, legal, and military issues. But the challenges that face her over the next 18 months -- assuming that she lasts that long -- are formidable. Urgent issues include navigating through challenging geopolitical and economic relations with Russia, bolstering the struggling European project, supporting French business interests in the former colonies, and managing a constructive collaboration with the United States on great global challenges, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

If that last challenge wasn't eminently clear, newly-appointed Defense Minister Alain Juppé's Nov. 17 announcement that France is looking to hand over control of areas of Afghanistan to local authorities put the Washington-Paris relationship front and center. A former prime minister, Juppé called Afghanistan a "trap" for international powers, and he announced that France is looking to pull some or all of its nearly 4,000 troops out of the country (likely before France's 2012 presidential elections).

But the no-drama MAM gives the impression that such challenges are what she lives for, not the public sniping and attention-grabbing one-upmanship of personal politics. "I settle things in person, not in the public square, nor behind people's backs through scurrilous insinuations," she explained in an interview with the conservative daily, Le Figaro, in October. "That might be a part of my rough character from my rugby-esque culture."

Rugby players aren't known for verbosity; they just put their head down and do what they can to move the ball forward. And, once again, MAM heads into the scrum.



A Washington Sage Leaves the Scene

Lee Hamilton, for years a go-to "wise man" for American presidents of both parties, speaks to FP about his many acolytes, Obama's foreign policy, and what to do about Iran.

When members of U.S. Congress retire, they often wind up on K Street, lobbying their successors on behalf of corporate clients and foreign governments.

A handful chooses a less lucrative path, and few with as much distinction and influence as Lee Hamilton, who served 17 terms in the House of Representatives representing Indiana during a period that spans from the early days of the Vietnam War to the fall of the Soviet Union to the Gulf War to U.S. interventions in the former Yugoslavia.

Hamilton, 79, is stepping down this fall after 12 years heading the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is going home to Indiana, where he directs Indiana University's Center on Congress. He will not entirely disappear from Washington; he remains on several panels, including President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board and an Energy Department commission on nuclear waste.

Hamilton also keeps ties to half a dozen senior administration officials, including Obama's chief foreign-policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Christopher Kojm. All got their start as Hamilton staffers at the Wilson Center or on what was once called the House International Relations Committee, where Hamilton served for more than three decades.

In an interview Sept. 28 in his spacious eighth-floor office in the mammoth Ronald Reagan Building, Hamilton downplayed his influence. Although he hosted foreign-policy soirees for Obama during the 2008 campaign and presidential transition and was on the shortlist for secretary of state, Hamilton said he is not now "a close intimate advisor" of the president, but does "see some of his staff fairly regularly." To the extent he is an external sounding board for this or previous administrations, he says, "I am sometimes a partner, sometimes a critic." (In a recent NPR interview, Hamilton noted that so far, "not an awful lot of progress has been made" on foreign-policy issues since Obama took over.)

Rhodes said Obama "has on occasion reached out to him or asked me to share a speech. If he wants to make the president aware of something, there are multiple channels."

Not that Obama always takes Hamilton's advice.

On Iran, for example, Hamilton criticized the president for not making better use of a Turkish-Brazilian deal last spring that would have sent out 1,200 kilograms of Iran's low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.

Obama should not have dismissed the deal out of hand, Hamilton said, noting that "it wasn't too different from what we had suggested" to Iran last fall.

"I think we were offended that the Turks and Brazilians would do that and a little chagrined," Hamilton said. "We should have tried to build on the positive aspects of it, and I think we will have to get back to it" if negotiations resume this fall.

Although strongly in favor of engagement when it comes to Iran, Hamilton is no starry-eyed dove. The military option should remain on the table, he said. "I don't favor exercising it today," he said. "A year from now I don't know how I'll feel."

On the Middle East peace process, currently hanging by a thread, Hamilton said the "U.S. at some point will have to weigh in with its ideas as to how this matter can be resolved." The Israelis and Palestinians, he said, simply aren't up to it, and Obama will have to intervene.

Over the years, Hamilton has become the king of congressionally mandated investigations, from the 9/11 Commission to the Iraq Study Group, both of which he co-chaired.

Mike Van Dusen, executive vice president of the Wilson Center and Hamilton's top aide for four decades, recalls walking into the White House with him a few years ago and hearing then-President George W. Bush exclaim, "‘God, there's Hamilton on another commission!'"

Robert Litwak, vice president for programs and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center, says Hamilton "represents an amalgam of different traditions in U.S. foreign policy -- idealism, realism, and pragmatism. His hallmark has been translating ideals into pragmatic solutions."

Hamilton was elected to Congress in 1964 in what he called "the best Democratic year in the last century" when "any fool could have been elected on the Democratic ticket and several were."

He had hoped to be on the Committee for Public Works, but was stuck with international relations -- now as then not considered a great prize for ambitious freshmen. But a few years later, when then-House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) offered him a spot on the much more influential Ways and Means Committee, Hamilton decided to stay with foreign affairs.

"Albert was astounded," Hamilton said, coming up to him on the House floor at one point and telling him, "I've decided you are the dumbest man in the House."

Hamilton attributes his interest in foreign countries in part to a year he spent in Germany on a fellowship after college, studying the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Once on the International Relations Committee, Hamilton applied himself.

"He was willing to spend time learning issues," Van Dusen says. "He went to hearings, he listened, and he asked good questions."

He also put out a newsletter on a different country or issue every week -- publications that influenced his colleagues and were "key to his role in Congress," Van Dusen says. Other members would crib from them when they had to make statements or speeches.

The Democratic leadership of the House repeatedly put Hamilton on investigative committees, including one in the mid-1980s that probed the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan White House sold weapons to the Iranian regime and used the proceeds to fund anti-communist fighters in Central America, in defiance of a congressional ban.

Hamilton's industriousness and energy are legendary. Rhodes, hired by Hamilton in 2002, recalls that his boss -- who was already in his 70s at the time -- made it to his office at the Wilson Center every weekday morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

By the time Rhodes arrived at 8 a.m., Hamilton "would have read seven or eight newspapers, underlining and clipping articles," Rhodes said.

"He kept a running file on countries," Rhodes added. "Even if he was chairing a 9/11 Commission hearing, he would want to know what was going on elsewhere."

Rhodes also attests to Hamilton's lack of partisanship -- an increasingly rare quality in Washington.

On the 9/11 Commission, "there were times when Democrats wanted him to be more forceful in challenging the [Bush] administration," Rhodes recalls. Instead, Hamilton "treated Democratic and Republican witnesses alike."

Rhodes remembers a trip to Baghdad during work on the Iraq Study Group when Hamilton, eating dinner with U.S. generals, asked how they got ice cream and how much it cost to bring it to Iraq.

"'The whole thing is hugely expensive,'" Rhodes quoted Hamilton as saying. "'Is it even appropriate?' It's what someone would ask if he was representing his constituents, the taxpayers."

Over the years, Hamilton says, he has become more skeptical of U.S. military intervention, and he's pessimistic about the future of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq's current and likely continued prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is too sectarian, he said, not the Iraqi nationalist he claims to be. As for Afghanistan, five years from now, "the Taliban will be there; we largely will not be there."

"We've learned that we've got to keep objectives and resources in better balance than we do," Hamilton said.

At the Wilson Center, which is partially funded by Congress, Hamilton helped transform a sleepy academic think tank into an idea factory more relevant to policymakers and more self-sufficient.

"He made it less wooly-headed," says Robert Hathaway, director of the center's Asia program and another graduate of Hamilton's House International Relations Committee.

Under Hamilton, the center's budget quadrupled but the U.S. taxpayers' share of it dropped to one-third from two-thirds. The staff nearly doubled, and the number of resident and temporary scholars increased by one-third, including a number of journalists (myself among them: I wrote much of my book on Iran during a three-month stint at the center in the summer of 2006).

The Office of Management and Budget is trying to cut the Wilson Center's stipend to around $9 million from $12.2 million, Hamilton said. He's fighting back, hoping to keep the appropriation at last year's level.

As for his successor, a search committee has compiled a list of 10 or 12 candidates, and interviews will begin in early October, Hamilton says. Some are members of Congress, and there are also "some names that will surprise you," he said, smiling and declining to give details.

William Miller, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, senior scholar at the Wilson Center, and a longtime friend, says that Hamilton will be hard to replace.

"He's one of the really exemplary public servants that our country has produced," Miller said. "He's judicious, objective, and incorruptible. Not everyone agrees with his conclusions, but no one doubts that he's arrived at his judgments through study and objectivity."

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