France frets about its image abroad

AP News
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Posted: Oct 14, 2010 11:28 AM
France frets about its image abroad

Many in France see the country as open to the world and a champion of human rights, a nation bound by liberty, equality and brotherhood.

But tough government law-and-order policies including crackdowns on Gypsies and a ban on Islamic veils are causing trouble for France's image abroad. A report handed this week to President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party says the country should use stronger public diplomacy to better explain itself.

The report, commissioned by Sarkozy's UMP party, lists recent developments that were popular at home but baffled or angered observers in other nations. A new law forbidding burqa-like veils in public has upset Muslims at home and abroad. And from the United Nations to the Vatican, critics have questioned France's expulsions of hundreds of Gypsies, or Roma, back to their homes in Eastern Europe.

The timing couldn't be worse. France's global image will gain new importance in coming months as the country becomes the mouthpiece and moderator for the world's leading economies. In November, France takes over the presidency of the Group of 20, which includes advanced and emerging nations, and it will lead the Group of 8 industrialized economies starting in January.

"As we prepare to lead the G20, we can't keep doing nothing if we want to win back our audience, our prestige and our reputation in international public opinion," the report said.

As emerging countries gain influence, "it is our duty to occupy the place that is ours in the concert of nations," the report said. The UMP leader, Xavier Bertrand, praised its findings as "pertinent, intelligent and very new."

In one signal France is concerned about its international stature, Sarkozy is pushing for a larger European role in the U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks _ an effort that also might help him seem more statesmanlike and boost his dismal approval ratings ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

Ordinary people are worried about France's stature too: A poll released Sept. 18 suggested that 71 percent of French people fear the country's image abroad is suffering. The Ifop poll for regional paper Sud Ouest Dimanche surveyed 965 people by phone.

The author of the UMP report, Frank Melloul _ a party member who plans strategy at France's state-run international broadcasting company _ says he isn't criticizing the government's positions.

But "when you make a bold political decision, you always have to ... think not just of public opinion inside the country, but also outside the country," he told The Associated Press.

Asked how he would "sell" France's crackdown on the Roma, for example, Melloul said that though France is the country of openness, liberty and fraternity, the government must stress "that there are also laws and rules when you live in France, and you can't break them."

The government says Roma squatters camps are illegal, and that while they can enter France freely as European Union citizens, they must prove they won't become a burden on the state for stays longer than three months.

The European Commission says nonetheless that France's moves don't meet EU rules on the free movement of citizens, and Paris has been working out a response.

As for the anti-veil law, Melloul says, the government needs to get its message out to counter rhetoric from radical Islamists and from those who see it as "a law against Islam." The government argues that it isn't discriminatory and says the law will preserve French values like secularism and women's rights.

France's commitment in Afghanistan, where it has roughly 4,000 troops, also needs more explaining abroad, he said.

Melloul suggests that France needs a "special representative for public diplomacy." There must also be more "synergy" between France's international broadcasting, its development agency and its cultural outreach, his report said.

He also believes new technology is key.

That sounds straightforward enough, but when the government launched a promotional site called http://www.france.fr this summer on Bastille Day, the site crashed almost immediately and stayed down for a month _ a very global embarrassment.