France and the Middle East: Nicolas Sarkozy's Nuclear Option

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Judah Grunstein | 13 Feb 2008

PARIS -- When Nicolas Sarkozy took office last May, everyone expected him to be an active president. Known for his relentless pace and tireless work ethic, Sarkozy had promised to reinvigorate France's foreign policy, which had suffered from an accumulation of failure and fatigue under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. To that end, Sarkozy has not disappointed. In a little over eight months as president, he has visited 25 countries on four continents, strengthening historic bonds (America), nurturing new ones (China, India), and above all raising France's profile around the world.

Indeed, if there's been a surprise in Sarkozy's foreign policy, it has to do not with how active, but with how radioactive it has been. Everywhere he has gone, it seems, Sarkozy has been peddling nuclear energy. And while his aggressive advocacy for Areva, the French nuclear energy giant, in both China and India did not go unnoticed, it's his vigorous promotion of nuclear energy in the Arab world that has really attracted attention.

Since last summer, Sarkozy has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Libya, Algeria and most recently the United Arab Emirates; has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for such an accord with Qatar; has laid the groundwork for the same kind of deal with Morocco and Jordan; and has offered the arrangement to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "What we're seeing," explained Bruno Tertrais, a research fellow at the Fondation de Recherche Statégique, "is a deliberate strategy of proposing nuclear partnerships that correspond to the regional demand."

The demand springs in part from the prestige attached to nuclear energy, as well as from the economic interest these countries have -- with the recent rise in energy prices -- in selling their domestic gas and oil rather than consuming it. Sarkozy's decision to meet it, on the other hand, reflects a strategic calculation designed to counter Iranian claims that the West is unwilling to share civil nuclear energy with the Arab world.

As a French official who agreed to speak with World Politics Review on condition of anonymity put it, "It's imperative in political terms to show that there isn't a double standard when it comes to civil nuclear programs." In order to maintain its credibility in opposing Iran's nuclear program (which he considers among the world's gravest threats), Sarkozy has argued that the West must satisfy the legitimate and NPT-compliant aspirations of other Arab countries. As the French official pointed out, the NPT's purpose is not only to contain weapons proliferation, but to promote civil nuclear programs as well. To insist, with regard to the Arab world, on the former while ignoring the latter only serves to legitimize the Iranian rhetoric.

But Sarkozy's emphasis on nuclear energy is not only a method of containing Iran. As the French official went on to explain, it also represents a "reaffirmation of French influence, through a sector where France excels." Nuclear policy happens to be a sector over which the French president is constrained by little domestic oversight, and it offers Sarkozy (and Areva) a striking advantage compared to, for instance, their American counterparts. At the national level, the bi-lateral accords Sarkozy has signed need be examined and approved only by a committee of government ministers, all of whom are appointed by the president and serve at his pleasure.

Clouding the regulatory picture even further, the public sector Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA) (the French equivalent of the atomic energy commission), which provides technical and counter-proliferation guidance for the formulation of French nuclear policy, owns roughly 80 percent of Areva on behalf of the French state, which directly owns another 8 percent. In other words, France is an interested party in the very lucrative contracts that these bilateral accords make possible. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of Sarkozy's nuclear diplomacy being sidetracked by significant domestic opposition is a longshot.

Ironically, the Council on Exterior Nuclear Policy (the inter-ministerial committee that must sign off on any reactor deal) was created by presidential decree in 1976 in the aftermath of what might be charitably described as France's cavalier approach to nuclear exports that (along with an ill-advised Canadian reactor) played a role in Pakistan's accession to a nuclear weapons state. To be sure, any bilateral nuclear deals France signs today must still be submitted for approval to the European Commission, pursuant to the Euratom treaty. Also, as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a nuclear power signatory to the NPT, France is an active participant in the multilateral counter-proliferation regime.

Fear of nuclear proliferation raises eyebrows . . .
But it's not surprising that among the reasons Sarkozy's strategy has raised eyebrows, the fear of nuclear weapons proliferation figures prominently. That fear is especially acute with regards to the Middle East, where one of the principal arguments for containing the suspect Iranian program is to prevent a regional nuclear arms race. That this argument has been advanced perhaps most forcefully by France itself makes Sarkozy's emphasis on nuclear diplomacy, at first glance, all the more curious.

But as Olivier Caron, director of international relations at the CEA explained via e-mail, and as Tertrais confirmed, the risk of proliferation arising from these agreements is almost non-existent. "The reactors that France wishes to export (high-pressure light water reactors with low-enriched uranium) are by their nature the least proliferant. Any siphoning off of materials would be immediately detected by the IAEA long before the receiving state could convert anything to military use."

That leaves the thorny issue of what impact such cooperation might have on regimes that are at best repressive and at worst dictatorial. Sarkozy has argued that his engagement with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, for example, is part of the process of luring that country back into the community of responsible nations. The French official framed the nuclear accords in the context of Col. Gadhafi's strategic decision to abandon his clandestine nuclear program and provide the IAEA with full and unfettered access to Libya's research installations.

Stéfane Lhomme of the anti-nuclear advocacy group Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire was more circumspect. "Nuclear energy is also a human rights question. It's undemocratic, because the people get no say in the decisions that are made on their behalf. And where there's nuclear energy, there's more police and more surveillance. It primarily serves the interests of the authorities, not of the country. So while we're against it in principle, selling it to a dangerous dictator is even worse."

Rama Yade, the French secretary of state for human rights, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But when Gadhafi visited Paris last December, she was outspokenly critical. "To find ourselves with Human Rights Day on one hand and Gadhafi on the tarmac of Orly on the other is a problem. . . . France has an identity, values, principles, [it's not] just a commercial scale [or] a doormat that a leader can just come wipe his bloodstained feet on . . ." Significantly, Yade has refrained from further comment since a widely reported convocation to Elysée Palace following her remarks.

Despite all the media attention these deals have attracted, however, the only actual contract that Areva has signed is an exploratory agreement with the UAE -- which means that the actual construction of reactors is at best a long way off. As Fleur Floquet, a press officer for Areva who responded via email, explained, "Areva will only work with countries that have established the framework of a sustainable nuclear industry. This process can take on average around 15 years and includes . . . the identification of an appropriate site, the existence of a competent utility with trained personnel, the definition and implementation by authorities of a certification procedure, the creation and implementation of an independent nuclear safety authority with trained personnel and grid upgrading if required."

What's more, both Tertrais and the French official expressed some doubt as to Areva's actual commitment to the region as a potential market. According to Tertrais, "The nuclear industry is currently in a position of force. Due to the large global demand, it can choose its clients. And these countries are difficult clients." Floquet seemed to confirm that sentiment, if less explicitly: "These markets are very interesting to the [Areva] Group in the long-term," she stated, while adding, "Presently, Areva is focusing on mature markets such as the United States and Asia."

In other words, despite a gathering tide of converging interests, there is nothing inevitable about a nuclear Middle East. "It comes down to the relation between economic and political needs," Tertrais elaborated. "The countries of the region don't have an economic need for nuclear energy, and the countries of the West don't have a political need to supply it."

So is the entire gambit just another case of Sarkozy's vaunted use of the media to further his political agenda while actually committing himself to little in the way of concrete action? No, said the French official. "These accords put into motion a process that includes teams of experts conducting technical surveys." While he made no mention of it, that kind of presence on the ground provides opportunities to forge ties with the region's scientific elites. That, in turn, could prove valuable in the long term for France's intelligence gathering capacity, a capacity that Defense Minister Hervé Morin identified as a critical asset in his annual address to the Armed Forces.

Perhaps most importantly, French experts on the ground fit well with the image that Sarkozy would like to project in a region that is beginning to search for alternatives to its historical reliance on America. It's an image of a France in action, a global player both willing and able not just to assume a supporting role, but to take the initiative on the world stage. Most of all, it's an image of a France that listens when its friends speak, and responds when they ask.

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