Sarkozy’s Iron Lady

Meet Michèle Alliot-Marie, France's right-wing, rugby-loving new foreign minister.


International diplomacy can be a rough-and-tumble world, ripe with jujitsu fake-outs, illegal tackles, and plenty of grappling in the scrum. In the end, it all proved too much for the left-wing humanitarian Bernard Kouchner, whose appointment as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister started out with so much promise, but ended up with him watching from the sidelines. So perhaps it makes sense that Kouchner’s newly-appointed replacement, Michèle Alliot-Marie, is a devout student of rugby.

The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. "I think that I’d still be able to make a pass," she noted. Given her steely demeanor — she often comes across as downright unbreakable — it isn’t impossible to imagine MAM taking a few hits on the rugby pitch. But perhaps it’s her innate sense of the game’s rules (her father was an international rugby referee) that has served her so well in the subtler but often much dirtier game of politics.

Alliot-Marie has embraced another pastime traditionally seen as the exclusive domain of men. She was France’s first woman to head a major political party — the conservative Rally for the Republic that oversaw the reelection of President Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was later folded into the Union for a Popular Movement that drove Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential candidacy.

She has also shattered a number of other glass ceilings. With her new appointment, plus other stints as head of the defense, justice and interior ministries, she has scored the first ever ministerial "grand slam," overseeing all four of the big-power ministries. In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 11th most powerful woman on Earth. With France now assuming the rotating presidency of the G-20 and Sarkozy looking to the international arena to restore his much-tarnished brand at home, Alliot-Marie’s profile is likely to rise to even greater heights.

On Nov. 17, Sarkozy’s third and most explicitly conservative government held its inaugural Council of Ministers, the first productive gathering of his new government. Chosen with an eye focused on presidential elections less than 18 months from now, Sarkozy has sought to project a new vitality, but the French are skeptical of his latest reshuffle. Approximately two-thirds of the electorate lacks confidence in the new government out of the gate, and nearly nine in 10 believe that Sarkozy’s policies will continue unchanged. Yet a majority — 53 percent — continues to have a positive view of Alliot-Marie, who has notably avoided implication in an array of scandals and court investigations that dogged Chirac and Sarkozy.

Alliot-Marie has never shied away from controversy and has made a notable impact at each of her previous appointments. As minister of youth and sports in the 1990s, she pushed through a law that permits the banning of violent sports fans from stadiums, a move that didn’t endear her to some feisty soccer-loving far-right supporters. As defense minister, she proved popular in her numerous on-the-ground visits to French troops in hot spots from West Africa to Lebanon to Afghanistan. More concretely, she further professionalized the French military via reforms (and ended the draft) and she diplomatically fended off pressure from Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take part in the early military stabilization of Iraq (in accordance with France’s policy) while retaining good personal relations with Rumsfeld and overseeing French military involvement in Afghanistan. More recently, at the Interior Ministry, she consolidated intelligence bodies to create a sort of French FBI, though with France facing repeated terrorist threats in recent months, the jury is still out on the impact. At the Justice Ministry, she introduced legislation that effectively banned the Muslim veil and other forms of facial covering in public settings.

Core conservatives, who are uncomfortable with the president’s frenetic — many say erratic — political methods, find Alliot-Marie to be refreshingly reliable and satisfyingly unsurprising, and rock-solid on the values that they care about. (It hasn’t hurt that she can be a strongly partisan female political voice. Of mercurial 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, she said, "We don’t need someone who changes ideas as often as she changes her skirt.")

And yet, as a prominent minister, she has tended to serve the beliefs of her presidential or prime ministerial bosses, rather than administering any broad political vision of her own. In fact, most French people would be hard-pressed to discern her personal political views on key issues like Europe, Islam, and the cultural integration of immigrants. Even on the issue of the trans-Atlantic relationship, on which she is more closely associated with former Chirac’s multipolar vision than Sarkozy’s more U.S.-friendly one, she has avoided any public scrapes with her current boss. It is unlikely that she will bend French foreign policy to fit her beliefs. As is her habit, she is more likely to implement the key foreign-policy positions that Sarkozy has already been promoting, but with greater reliability and discipline than her predecessor.

This doesn’t mean that Alliot-Marie doesn’t have opinions on policy; she just doesn’t express them in public or in the media, unlike many of her colleagues. This might have to do with her discreet vision of her role, as well as her relationship with the president. "We have known each other for a very long time, we have shared a part of our political journey," she said of Sarkozy in Paris Match magazine a year ago while serving as his minister of justice. "He has never lied to me, never dissimulated anything at all. Me neither. I am a loyal woman. When we have things to say to each other, we say them. That concerns us and no one else."

It’s no surprise then that MAM has been compared to her U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton. The comparison is in some ways apt, though she bears a greater resemblance to Clinton as the loyal, tough-talking, get-things-done secretary of state than the combative, opinionated presidential candidate.

If Alliot-Marie’s ascendancy is a victory of technique and discretion over policy vision, it will likely come as a welcome relief for a broad swath of the French electorate. The hope is that e’s sturdy presence in the government will act as a stabilizing force, especially for a Foreign Ministry that has seen much of its influence and power usurped by other parts of the government in recent years. Her predecessor, Kouchner, who was cherry-picked from the Socialist Party to give the government the appearance of political inclusion, never had the president’s trust.

In reality, many if not most key foreign-policy issues were run out of an informal political cell in the Élysée presidential palace, leaving Kouchner as little more than a symbol of political inclusiveness, sometimes even robbing him of his role as foreign-policy mouthpiece. (Sensitive missions involving the Middle East and Africa were handled by the secretary-general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant; Sarkozy’s diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, focused on the United States and China.) It is likely that MAM’s reputation for protecting her policy turf will soon be put to the test.

While MAM has never played up her remarkable rise, Sarkozy has proudly trumpeted the impressive inclusion of women in his various governments, whether they were well-suited to their positions or not. He has since let go of prominent ones, like his flashy and less-than-diplomatic former justice minister Rachida Dati, and the very popular but insolent young secretary of state for sports, Rama Yade. Alliot-Marie, in her unsentimental way, set herself apart from such appointees when she commented: "There is nothing worse than having a woman in a position that she doesn’t succeed in; it is prejudicial for all women."

Still, whether she wants to admit it or not, Alliot-Marie does check a number of political boxes for the ever-tactical Sarkozy, who needs to bolster his support with doubting Gaullist traditionalists and others who now fondly recall Chirac. (France is in the grip of a serious round of Chirac-nostalgia with polls regularly showing him as the most popular living politician in the country.) MAM too feels this fondness: indeed she only got into national politics when "family friend," Chirac, suggested the idea. For three decades he has been a key political mentor. She was so closely associated with the former president, who long had fraught relations with Sarkozy, that she mulled running as his Gaullist heir in the 2007 presidential campaign. Her decision not to run — in addition to her professionalism and conservative bona fides — has helped to keep her in the Council of Ministers without pause under two presidents. Sarkozy’s decision to was doubly tactical; he has kept a potentially potent conservative competitor in the fold and simultaneously comforted members of his party who had expressed unease with the execution of his foreign-policy agenda under Kouchner.

The real question is whether MAM’s clout will allow her to maneuver more freely than Kouchner, who never fully filled his ministerial shoes. There are signs that she will. Sarkozy’s new government has restored some of the symbolic strength of the Foreign Ministry and appointed no fewer than three ministers to the Quai d’Orsay as part of the government reshuffle (Alliot-Marie at the top; the youthful former government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez responsible for European affairs; and Henri de Raincourt, who will oversee international cooperation).

But whether Alliot-Marie will be permitted to truly oversee policy is still an open question. It could be a smart move: She brings to the job a rare practical depth and breadth of field from decades of experience with security, legal, and military issues. But the challenges that face her over the next 18 months — assuming that she lasts that long — are formidable. Urgent issues include navigating through challenging geopolitical and economic relations with Russia, bolstering the struggling European project, supporting French business interests in the former colonies, and managing a constructive collaboration with the United States on great global challenges, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

If that last challenge wasn’t eminently clear, newly-appointed Defense Minister Alain Juppé’s Nov. 17 announcement that France is looking to hand over control of areas of Afghanistan to local authorities put the Washington-Paris relationship front and center. A former prime minister, Juppé called Afghanistan a "trap" for international powers, and he announced that France is looking to pull some or all of its nearly 4,000 troops out of the country (likely before France’s 2012 presidential elections).

But the no-drama MAM gives the impression that such challenges are what she lives for, not the public sniping and attention-grabbing one-upmanship of personal politics. "I settle things in person, not in the public square, nor behind people’s backs through scurrilous insinuations," she explained in an interview with the conservative daily, Le Figaro, in October. "That might be a part of my rough character from my rugby-esque culture."

Rugby players aren’t known for verbosity; they just put their head down and do what they can to move the ball forward. And, once again, MAM heads into the scrum.

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