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A rocky start for France’s new foreign minister

As Eric Pape wrote for FP in November, France’s new foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, came to the job with a sterling reputation — she’s the first person ever to lead all of France’s major ministries — and a reputation as a no-nonsense technocrat. President Nicolas Sarkozy was likely hoping Alliot-Marie would set a new tone ...

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

As Eric Pape wrote for FP in November, France's new foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, came to the job with a sterling reputation -- she's the first person ever to lead all of France's major ministries -- and a reputation as a no-nonsense technocrat. President Nicolas Sarkozy was likely hoping Alliot-Marie would set a new tone after her predecessor, Bernard Kouchner, a globally famous humanitarian who clashed frequently with his boss over human rights issues. But in her first few weeks on the job, no-drama Michèle has been making the wrong kind of headlines.

First there was her handling of the events in Tunisia, which was already bound to be embarrassing for Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's longtime friends in Paris. As the demonstrations increased in intensity, Alliot-Marie suggested in Parliament that French police could help their Tunisian counterparts restore calm since they were skilled in "security situations of this type" -- a remark which simultaneously highlighted both France's cozy relationship with one of the Middle East's most repressive regimes and its own uncomfortable history with rioting Muslim youths. Alliot-Marie defended herself from criticism, saying that her remarks had been misinterpreted and pointing out -- correctly -- that the Socialist leaders who were kicking up a fuss hadn't exactly seen Ben Ali's overthrow coming either. (They were too busy receiving lifetime achievement awards from him.)

Now today, Alliot-Marie's entourage was attacked by egg-throwing protesters in Gaza because of remarks that she didn't even make. The foreign minister, who was nearly hit by a shoe, was believed by the crowd to have called Hamas's imprisonment of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit a "war crime":

As Eric Pape wrote for FP in November, France’s new foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, came to the job with a sterling reputation — she’s the first person ever to lead all of France’s major ministries — and a reputation as a no-nonsense technocrat. President Nicolas Sarkozy was likely hoping Alliot-Marie would set a new tone after her predecessor, Bernard Kouchner, a globally famous humanitarian who clashed frequently with his boss over human rights issues. But in her first few weeks on the job, no-drama Michèle has been making the wrong kind of headlines.

First there was her handling of the events in Tunisia, which was already bound to be embarrassing for Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s longtime friends in Paris. As the demonstrations increased in intensity, Alliot-Marie suggested in Parliament that French police could help their Tunisian counterparts restore calm since they were skilled in "security situations of this type" — a remark which simultaneously highlighted both France’s cozy relationship with one of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes and its own uncomfortable history with rioting Muslim youths. Alliot-Marie defended herself from criticism, saying that her remarks had been misinterpreted and pointing out — correctly — that the Socialist leaders who were kicking up a fuss hadn’t exactly seen Ben Ali’s overthrow coming either. (They were too busy receiving lifetime achievement awards from him.)

Now today, Alliot-Marie’s entourage was attacked by egg-throwing protesters in Gaza because of remarks that she didn’t even make. The foreign minister, who was nearly hit by a shoe, was believed by the crowd to have called Hamas’s imprisonment of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit a "war crime":

The remark had actually been made by the soldier’s father after meeting the French minister a day earlier in his campaign to win the release of his son, Gilad Schalit, who was captured in a 2006 cross-border raid by militants with ties to Hamas.

A member of the minister’s entourage was hit in the head and later examined at an Israeli hospital, according to the spokeswoman’s office at Barzilai Medical Center in the city of Ashkelon, just north of Gaza. Spokeswoman Lea Malul identified her as Valerie Hoffenberg, a French envoy involved in the Mideast peace process.

Dozens of protesters, relatives of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, were waiting for Michele Alliot-Marie as she crossed from Israel into Gaza through the Erez Crossing, lying on the road and jumping on her vehicle.

As if that wasn’t enough, France is also likely heavily involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to resolve the ongoing election crisis in the Ivory Coast. Here, it’s Alliot-Marie’s past that might get her in trouble:  

Alliot-Marie was minister of defence under Jacques Chirac when the French military destroyed Côte d’Ivoire’s military air force, a retaliatory operation sanctioned by Chirac after an airstrike on a French base killed nine French military personnel and one American. Alliot-Marie was unapologetic in overseeing a strong French military response in the face of mass demonstrations and anti-French rioting.

Alliot-Marie is also likely to face questions in the Muslim world about her staunch support of France’s headscarf ban and in Washington, over her strident past critiques of U.S. militarism.

Thus far in her remarkable meteoric rise, MAM has pulled off a remarkable feat: becoming one of the most powerful figures in French politics with virtually no major controversies attached to her name. If the last two weeks are any indication, she’s unlikely to leave her current job with that record intact.  

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: France

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