'Sarkozy the American' says Europe is top priority

PARIS - Rivals accuse Nicolas Sarkozy of wanting to move France into Washington's orbit, but the right-wing president-elect insists his top foreign policy goal is to boost Europe's role on the world stage.

The 52-year-old former interior minister has been nicknamed "Sarkozy the American" by friends and enemies alike for his unabashed praise of US society, its dynamism and meritocracy.

But a much-publicised trip to the United States last year during which Sarkozy met President George W. Bush left him battling to dispel the charge he was an "American neo-conservative with a French passport."

Struggling to correct his image, he insisted on the campaign stump that he wants a dialogue of friends and equals with the United States, praising France's opposition to the Iraq war and urging Americans to respect Europe's "freedom".

As president, although Sarkozy appears more pro-American than the outgoing Jacques Chirac, analysts do not expect him to profoundly shake up trans-Atlantic relations.

France's new leader is expected to pursue Chirac's policy on Iraq by upholding calls for a deadline for US troop withdrawal, as well as on Iran and the Middle East peace process.

Though he says he will fight for tough sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he opposes military intervention. While seen as close to Israel, he insists he gives equal importance to Palestinian statehood and Israeli security.

Sarkozy's says his priorities for shaking up French foreign policy lie closer to home: in Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean.

His first foreign trips will be to Brussels and Berlin, holder of the European Union presidency, as part of a push to end the crisis opened by France's rejection of an EU constitution in 2005.

To wrench the 27-member bloc out of deadlock, Sarkozy proposes a "mini-treaty" cherry-picking the practical parts of the constitution, which he says could be ratified by parliament, not by referendum.

It would create a permanent EU president and foreign minister to boost Europe's international voice, and allow groups of member states to set common policies, for instance on immigration, without agreement from the entire bloc.

Sarkozy argues for a consolidation of French and European defence efforts, pledging to maintain French defence spending at 2.0 percent of gross domestic product and describing nuclear deterrence as an "absolute imperative".

There is a potential for friction over Turkish membership of the EU: which France opposes along with Austria and Germany, while Britain backs Ankara's entry as a way to export stability to the edge of the Middle East.

Sarkozy is fiercely opposed to Turkish entry -- saying it would spell the "death of political Europe" -- calling instead for strong ties within a new union of the Mediterranean stretching from Turkey across southern Europe to Morocco.

Supporter of a system of chosen immigration, tailored to the needs of the labour market, he plans to head rapidly to Africa to "lay the foundations of a new immigration policy".

Sarkozy has promised an overhaul of relations with France's former African colonies, tacitly criticising Chirac's "personal" ties with the leaders of questionable regimes.

He also says France's military presence in Africa -- 10,000 soldiers in five permanent military bases -- should be kept to a minimum, handing over to an African Union force when possible.

On Africa's bloodiest conflict, in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, he has called for "urgent" action, warning that Khartoum would be made to face international justice for its actions in the region.

Sarkozy strongly opposed calls by election rivals for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics to force China -- Sudan's most important international ally -- to back international action in Darfur.

But he has vowed as president to confront rights violations committed by powerful allies -- citing the question of political freedoms in China and the in Russia's war-torn southern republic of Chechnya.

05/06/2007 18:04 GMT

Copyright © 2007