International Dinner at the Chicago Woman’s Athletic Club, December 11, 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,
It is wonderful to be in this beautiful ballroom again, 6 months after we celebrated Bastille day. Now the subject of course is different. No more storming of the Bastille, but a quiet celebration of Christmas in Provence. It is, indeed a time for rest, for renewal, and for friendship - after an exceptional year.
Before I start, I would like to say what a pleasure it is for Beatrice and myself to be posted here in this great city of Chicago. The city of the magnificent architecture, the city by the great lake, the stalwart city with the wind, the city which sent one of its most prominent figures to the white house and which will serve as an inspiration for the whole country (, even though there might be some hiccups). The city that works, the city with broad shoulders but also, the city with a big heart. The warmth of your welcome has gone to the bottom of my heart.
Tonight, I would like to talk about what America and France can do together to make the world a better place. My message is that the US and Europe need to strengthen their partnership, not so much because they have a common history but because they share the same objectives. And if there is a time to act, the time is now.
But let me start by saying a few words about the current situation in France. It has been 19 months since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of the French Republic. How does it look today ?
In my opinion, three major points stand out.
First point, Nicolas Sarkozy has clearly delivered on the program of change for which he was elected, after an intense debate.
This program has been largely implemented already. The main theme is the rehabilitation of work in France. For instance, constraints stemming from the 35hour workweek have been eliminated. Instead of being penalized, overtime work is now encouraged. Also, a cap has been put on the rate any household can be taxed upon, all taxes includedWe call this the ’tax shield’. Sarkozy has also demonstrated his commitment to change by addressing sensitive issues such as reforming the pension system of State-owned companies - an issue which sparked a major social political crisis in 1995.
In parallel, Nicolas Sarkozy has pushed for more flexible labor regulations by calling on the sense of responsibility of both the employers’ organizations and the unions. The social partners responded positively and agreed on a comprehensive set of reforms of our labor laws. This major breakthrough in our social system is, in my view, one of the major achievement of the Sarkozy’s presidency so far.
Second, the French government has confronted the financial crisis with determination and authority. The French financial system in generally sound : no subprime mortgage, no equity loan.
However, French banks are now facing the consequences of the economic downturn. To bolster our banking system, the government has created two new structures : the first one will contribute, as necessary, to the recapitalization of our banks, up to a total of € 40 billion for the whole country ; the other will extend a series of government guarantees to restore fluidity in the crucially important interbank market and make sure that the economy is properly financed.
The French government has also been active to prevent some of the recessionary consequences of the financial crises. With this goal in mind, Nicolas Sarkozy has just announced a package of 25 billion Euro, targeting a few sectors such as construction and automobile and bringing financial support to our small and medium enterprises.
These various measures have received a wide and cross-partisan support in France.
Finally, Nicolas Sarkozy has implemented a very proactive foreign policy, justifying the claim that ’France is back’ in Europe and on the world scene. The following steps have attested to this renewed ambition : the breaking of the political impasse on the European constitution, which can also be credited to the skills and leadership of Angela Merkel ; the proposal to fully reintegrate the military structure of NATO, subject to the recognition of a wider role for Europe inside the organization ; the constructive contribution made by France in Lebanon ; the confrontation of Ahmadinejab’s Iran on the nuclear issue ; the creation of the Mediterranean Union ; the successful mediation by Nicolas Sarkozy in the Georgia crisis ; and the initiative of our President which led to the G20 meeting in Washington last month to tackle the financial crisis.
With Nicolas Sarkozy, France has found a new energy which she is deploying both internally and externally. We are, on that basis, well placed to cooperate effectively with the Obama administration to address some of the world’s most challenging issues.
First of all, we are very excited about the perspective of working with the new American team. What a great image American democracy has given of itself ! What a strong signal the US has sent to the world ! How strong is the new tide of enthusiasm and hope ! As we see it in Europe, the election of Barack Obama has, in one night, radically changed the perception of the United States by the rest of the world. It creates an opportunity, not to be missed, to rectify some of the mistakes of the past and engage the world on a different course, a better course.
In practical terms, a French-American agenda on foreign policy could include the following three items : strengthening the transatlantic partnership ; reforming the global institutions and bringing peace and stability in the Middle East.
First, strengthening the Transatlantic Partnership
The Transatlantic partnership is indispensable for two major reasons. One we share the same objectives : peace, promotion of democracy, human rights, protection of our environment, fight against terrorism. This is what brings us together. Two, the influence of the US and Europe will be stronger if we act consistently. Think about human rights, think about global warming. This does not mean speaking with one voice, and certainly not acting as a bloc, which might trigger resentment or even hostility in other parts of the world. It means reforming NATO to achieve a better balance between the US and Europe. It means making the best use of the institutions created to promote dialog and cooperation between the US and the European Union. It means, over and above all, regularly and quietly speaking between us on important economic, political and other global issues so as to make sure that we fully understand and respect each other’s point of view, and even more importantly so, when they are different.
Second, reforming global institutions
France fully agrees with President-elect Obama : the United Nations is an indispensable institution but it is also an imperfect one. The UN is indispensable because it represents the international community and because it is based on just ideals. These ideals have been expressed eloquently in the Universal declaration of Human rights, of which we celebrated the 60th anniversary yesterday. As you might know, the Universal declaration of Human rights was, to a large part, a result of the joint efforts of the United States and France, since it was Eleanor Roosevelt who presided the Human Rights Commission and the French professor René Cassin who wrote its first draft.
The UN is also, an imperfect institution because its decision making process is sometimes frustrating ; and because it does not represent appropriately, especially within the Security Council, the diversity of the new, global world. This is why President Sarkozy made clear, during the last plenary meeting of the General Assembly, that reforming the UN is for us, quote unquote, an utmost priority. Making the UN a more relevant and efficient organization, increasing its recognition worldwide and making ii a better tool to promote peace, security and justice, are without any doubt a great cause for which we are ready to join forces with the United States and all the nations of good will on this planet.
Third, bringing about peace and stability in the Middle East
One of my favorite quotes about the Middle East is from General de Gaulle’s War memoirs, where he wrote "toward the complicated Middle East, I flew in with simple ideas".
It is not easy to have simple ideas about the Middle East but here is my best try.
One : the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues to be at the center of the overall conflict in the Middle East. I believe it is a bit futile to ask oneself whether or not it is the most important conflict, now that, unfortunately, other conflicts have emerged in the region. One thing, to lean on the positive side, is certain : a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict sixty years old, would do a lot to alleviate the situation in the Middle East and create a momentum of peace and stability.
Two : the terms of a settlement are known. They have been known for the last 8 years, and have been laid out in the so called Taba agreement reached by the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators acting under the good auspices of President Bill Clinton. This suggests two things : first, that political will matters a lot here ; second, that the leadership of the US president is a very important part of the overall political equation. With this in mind. France would certainly welcome a strong commitment of President Obama once he takes office, as we have welcomed and supported the Annapolis process launched by President Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice.
Three : as everybody is aware of, Iraq has been a source of discord between the US and France. Well, not anymore. We are not interested about arguing about the past but about the path towards stability and democracy in Iraq. Positive developments have taken place over the last months and we have welcomed them.
Four : concerning Iran, President Sarkozy has said with great clarity that the prospect of a nuclear Iran - able to enrich uranium and ultimately to build a nuclear bomb - was unacceptable. This does not mean that we reject the idea of a negotiation with Iran. Quite the contrary : our position - and it is the position of the International community - is that we would be ready to provide economic assistance to Iran and help to develop its use of civilian nuclear energy under the circumstances that Iran would unequivocally abandon its enrichment program. Unfortunately, Iran has not listened so far and this is why we have gone down the path of sanctions. We hope, however, that the path can be reversed, and we see the election of a new American President as an opportunity in this context. All the more so that Barack Obama has made no mystery of his intention to engage the Iranian leadership if conditions were appropriate.
Five : like the present American leadership, and the Presidentelect, we consider that the fight of NATO against the Taliban is an essential one. We have increased our military engagement and our President, as well as our Foreign Minister, never miss an opportunity to remind their interlocutor, as well as the French opinion, how crucial this fight for freedom and democracy is. However, we also insist on a the necessity of a strategy which does not rely exclusively on the use of military force. Strengthening the institutions, creating the conditions for social and economic development, engaging the Afghan population, are as essential as winning the battle on the field./.