A notoriously hard worker, Nicolas Sarkozy recently took time away from his vacation in Cap Nègre on the Côte d'Azur for a 40-minute phone conversation with Syrian opposition leader Abdulbaset Sieda to discuss how best to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They compared their (similar) analyses of the situation in Syria: essentially that Assad is Muammar al-Qaddafi 2.0 and that France should be playing a greater role in international efforts to isolate the dictator in Damascus. On Aug. 7, in the midst of the gaping holiday news hole in France, they issued a joint statement to publicize word of their consultation, as heads of state often do in such situations.
Given that Sarkozy's presidency ended in May, the French can be forgiven for wondering why he's still making statements on their country's foreign policy.
A generally obeyed rule of post-presidential etiquette in France, as in the United States, is that former presidents should avoid complicating the efforts of their successors. (Sarkozy had suggested, at the end of his five-year term, that he would return to his law practice, look for fresh opportunities in the private sector, and keep a low profile on the political front.) In France, the issue is even somewhat codified, with presidents enjoying automatic appointment to the Constitutional Council -- a sort of Supreme Court-lite. Being on the council requires an obligation de reserve, which means avoiding expressing public judgment on issues that have, or that might, come before the body. Particularly on foreign policy, where French presidents enjoy broad formal political autonomy, etiquette is everything.
So the response to Sarkozy's post-presidential freelance policy foray was stinging. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister appointed by President François Hollande, quickly retorted in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper published on Aug. 9: "I am surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to stir up controversy on such a grave subject; you would expect something more from a former president."
Fabius went on to argue that the situation in Syria is, in fact, entirely different from that in Libya prior to the collapse of the Qaddafi regime -- a collapse that was inarguably hastened by Sarkozy's diplomatic efforts and NATO air power. Among other things, Syria has chemical weapons and is a small and densely populated country bordering Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan -- meaning that the risks of regional contagion are far greater. And unlike in Libya, Fabius noted, no major powers have yet called for outside military intervention.
Then France's top diplomat became, well, a bit less diplomatic, as he attempted to discern Sarkozy's motivations. Fabius suggested that the former head of state wants "to avoid being forgotten." Sticking the knife in deeper, Fabius recalled Sarkozy's warm welcome of Assad to France to preside over 2008's Bastille Day ceremonies. (Sarkozy also invited Qaddafi to France in 2007; the Libyan leader ended up pitching his Bedouin tent a stone's throw from the Champs-Élysées, which turned into a source of shame for Sarkozy until Qaddafi's ouster.)
While Fabius's motivation was surely to protect his boss from allegations of lethargy as Syrians die, he is hardly the only person in French politics who has doubted Sarkozy's ability to exist outside the limelight following his recent rejection at the polls.
Parliamentarian Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who left Sarkozy's political movement to start his own conservative party several years ago, tweeted on Aug. 9 that "go-to-war" stances are dangerous and that "Sarkozy has once again missed a chance to shut up!"
So what was he thinking? Why would he break with well-established post-presidential protocol?