Sarkozy affirms alliance to Israel

French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his first major foreign-policy speech to signal a shift from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, casting himself as a “friend of Israel” and taking a tougher line on Russia and China.

But despite his admiration for the United States, Mr. Sarkozy said Mr. Chirac was right to oppose the war in Iraq, which he called a mistake.

“France was, and still is, hostile to the war,” he said, calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

He also cautioned against military action being used to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, warning that an attack on the Islamic regime would be “catastrophic.”

Mr. Sarkozy took over from fellow conservative Mr. Chirac in May, pledging to boost France’s international stature. The energetic new leader quickly scored a few high-profile diplomatic coups, such as helping secure freedom for six medical workers jailed in Libya for nine years on dubious charges of deliberately infecting children with AIDS.

Yet the diplomatic agenda he outlined yesterday was relatively modest. He proposed, for example, a committee of great minds to reflect on the future of the European Union — an unassuming proposal for the EU, which Mr. Sarkozy nonetheless called France’s “absolute priority.”

He also eased his opposition to Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU, which he previously vowed to block. Yesterday, Mr. Sarkozy said he would not oppose new talks with the predominantly Muslim country, while adding that discussions should examine the idea of a weaker alliance than membership.

“A few months after taking the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy is realizing that he has limited room for maneuvering,” said Philippe Moreau-Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations.

Mr. Sarkozy’s tough language about China and Russia sets him apart from Mr. Chirac, who was often criticized for too-cozy ties with authoritarian leaders.

Mr. Sarkozy warned Russia against exercising its energy exports with “brutality.” And he said China is “transforming its insatiable quest for raw materials into a strategy of control, notably in Africa.”

While France has a history of close ties with the Arab world, Mr. Sarkozy said: “I have the reputation of being a friend of Israel, and it’s true. I will never compromise on Israel’s security.”

Despite that, he said, the many Arab leaders who have visited him since his election know they can count on his friendship.

Mr. Sarkozy, who spent his summer holiday in New England and whose affection for the U.S. earned him the nickname “Sarko the American,” sent his foreign minister to Iraq last week to smooth over ties that were strained when Mr. Chirac opposed the U.S.-led invasion.