With the masterpiece of Nicolas Sarkozy’s domestic policy (raising the retirement age from 60 to 62) safely hung on the wall, the French president has signalled that he will refocus his efforts on the global stage, an always popular move in a country that has seen its influence decline over the past century. While Sarkozy is busy selling the G20 nations on global currency plans or trying to impress Russia, he needs someone to manage the rest of the foreign file with the precision of a TGV conductor. That’s why he fired Bernard Kouchner, the left-wing foreign minister with whom he has often butted heads, and replaced him with former justice minister and one-time leadership rival Michèle Alliot-Marie.
The choice is a strong signal that Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party is going back to its conservative roots, says Thomas Klau, the head analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. Alliot-Marie, known as “MAM” for her schoolmarm fashion sense, possesses the “safe hands” Sarkozy needs as he packs his suitcase and prepares to impress the world ahead of 2012’s national elections, says Klau.
Indeed, Alliot-Marie, a rugby-playing centre-right politician from Basque country, has been compared to Margaret Thatcher for her conviction that people mustn’t depend on the state, and to Hillary Clinton for her pragmatic approach to conflict. She’s also known as a steady manager who can make her ministries work. When she was first appointed minister of defence in 2002, many were skeptical that she could do the job. Within a year, defence analysts were praising her leadership. “She demonstrated a very high degree of authority very quickly in an area where she did not have a high degree of preparation,” defence expert Francois Heisbourg told the Washington Post five months after the appointment.
Klau was most impressed that Alliot-Marie managed to hold the defence post for five years without a single major scandal. “Her reputation is as a straight-talking, confident and tough manager,” says Klau. “That worked extremely well for her, not only with the defence intelligence, but also with the troops.” The troops were particularly impressed when she parachuted from a plane in Afghanistan.
Alliot-Marie has also proven herself capable of handling international assignments, having aided Sarkozy in his efforts to refocus French diplomacy from Africa, America and the Arab world to Russia, Brazil, India and China. It was Alliot-Marie who sat down with Hu Jintao and promised him France would encourage other Western nations to lift a 1989 arms embargo.
But it’s not just her management experience that makes her a safe choice for Sarkozy ahead of the next campaign. The UMP is facing competition from Marine Le Pen, the well-spoken female leader of the far-right National Front. Klau believes Le Pen could siphon off more than a few female voters in 2012 and hand victory to the left if Sarkozy isn’t careful. “With MAM as foreign minister and Christine Lagarde as finance minister, we now have women in two of the most visible roles in government,” he explains. “The two women will often be in the picture—quite literally.”