Drawing The French Battle Lines

Bastille Day is just around the corner, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy is looking to make his country's national holiday a defining moment in its relations with the rest of the world. He has invited leaders from all the members of the European Union and all the nonmember states on the Near Eastern and African shores of the Mediterranean to attend a summit on July 13 and watch the massive military parade from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde on the 14th.

With just a month to go and counting, he sent his chief of staff, Claude Guéant, to Damascus to make sure Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would be showing up in Paris at the same time and in the same hall as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, maybe to talk peace. And on June 22, Sarkozy himself was scheduled to head to Israel on the first state visit there by a French president since 1996. But that's just the beginning. Last week Sarkozy announced a radical restructuring of the French armed forces, and at the beginning of July, France will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union with an agenda intended to put Paris front and center in the Union long after it gives up its six-month seat in Brussels. The plan would make France the first among (un)equals in an ever-tighter alliance for defense as well as trade. Only Britain has comparable military forces, and Sarkozy wants to make sure his are the most effective. "France has to change to remain itself," Sarkozy told his generals, many of whom fear budget cuts will come quickly but improvements will not.

The spectacle of Sarkozy's grandstanding as he gets ready for the big parade may be reminiscent of many a French president who struggled to show that he and his country were still relevant players. But unlike his predecessors, Sarkozy has put a lot of new pieces on the board, he's moving them all at once, and he's breaking precedents the French thought were immutable. What they are witnessing may not be a revolution on a par with the storming of the Bastille, but it is about as radical a change in foreign-policy and national-security doctrine as they've seen in decades. Gone is the geopolitical posturing of French presidents who wanted to act as a counterbalance to American power. Instead, speaking the week after the Irish voted down the Treaty of Lisbon, Sarkozy promised that France would remain "a great military power," and presented collective defense as the key to greater unity.

The clearest outline of Sarkozy's foreign-policy and defense ambitions came in the speech he delivered to the French military elite last week, in which he shifted priorities away from resisting invasion, which ceased to be a threat 15 years ago, and emphasized flexibility in an uncertain world where dangers have become "diverse and ever-changing." By slashing the number of soldiers to 225,000 over the next half-dozen years and focusing on a smaller, lighter military, he hopes to be able to finance better intelligence gathering that anticipates threats, whether from terrorists, failed states, nuclear proliferators, cyberwarriors or climate change. Rather than manning garrisons left over from colonial days in Francophone Africa, France will prepare for action in what Defense Minister Hervé Morin has called "an arc of crisis going from Mauritania to Afghanistan." And with more modern equipment, Sarkozy wants to be able to deploy 30,000 combat forces quickly and efficiently to the far corners of the world while dealing effectively with catastrophic events at home. "The French are realizing that not even they are able to go it alone, and he is putting the French military back in the business of dealing with threats that really matter," says Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform.

Sarkozy has also made it clear that next year France will rejoin NATO's integrated command structure for the first time since President Charles De Gaulle pulled out of it in 1966. As part of his plan for greater EU defense cooperation both inside and outside NATO, Sarkozy proposed a complete restructuring and unification of Europe's defense industries, a vast exchange program for officer training, perhaps even a European military college and unified headquarters.

Sarkozy telegraphed his contempt for geopolitical game-playing in the style of his predecessors well before his election last year. He has praised the United States unabashedly, and embraced Israel enthusiastically, unlike previous French presidents who tended to worry about the sensibilities of rich Arab tyrants. "All democracies are accountable for Israel's security, which is nonnegotiable," Sarkozy wrote in 2006, and since he took office, relations with Jerusalem have looked like a love-in. "You are a great and positive gush of wind in French politics," Israeli President Shimon Peres told him on a visit in March.

Over the past year, Sarkozy has played diplomatic hardball while getting ready for a brawl, a strategy that buttresses the vision for France he is now presenting. France has taken the lead among the Europeans, for instance, in tough negotiations to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt programs that could enable it to build nuclear weapons. In cultivating Olmert and Assad, the French also are playing a more active, public role in Middle East peacemaking than ever before, partly because Washington's initiatives have been getting nowhere.

But it hasn't taken long for the French military establishment to push back. Generals writing anonymously in the conservative daily Le Figaro charged Sarkozy with "a true downgrading of our country's military." They deemed his plan a strategy for communications more than defense. Even before the report came out, the British were skeptical, especially about French plans for a European defense college and a European operational command in Brussels. "This will end in tears," predicted retired Brig. Geoffrey Van Orden, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament. But then Sarkozy declared that the college and headquarters needed further study. "The French want everything!" says Valasek. "But on the most controversial points [with the British], they went soft." Indeed, Sarkozy's pragmatic view toward change had emerged again. After all, there's no need to wreck the party on Bastille Day even before it starts. France's revolution in defense and foreign policy has only just begun.