In the last few years, France has asserted herself on the international scene in a very active way – first under President Nicolas Sarkozy and then even more under President François Hollande. She led the way among Western powers to intervene in Libya in order to oust Muammar Khaddafi. She has pushed the hardest line of all Western powers on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. She has intervened unilaterally in Mali to stop the downward sweep of Islamic armed movements. Hollande was received virtually as a hero when he came recently to Israel because of his hard line on negotiations with Syria and with Iran. And now she has sent troops to try to restore order in the Central African Republic.
This is the same France which, ten years ago, was being pilloried by the United States Congress for its refusal to go along with U.S. intervention in Iraq, to the point that the food term “French fries” was publicly rejected in the United States. This is the same France that was regarded as far too pro-Palestinian by the Israelis. This is the same France that not so long ago publicly renounced the concept of “Françafrique” – France’s presumed duty to keep order in its ex-African colonies – as no longer appropriate behavior. What has happened to explain this turnaround?
There are of course some factors internal to France that contributed to these developments. Because of its colonial history, France today has a large number of Muslim residents and citizens who are largely an economic underclass. Many of the younger Muslims have become increasingly militant and some of them have been attracted to the more radical versions of Islamist politics. While this shift has occurred throughout the pan-European world, it seems particularly strong in France. It has therefore evoked a political reaction not only from extreme-right xenophobic groups like the Front National but from persons holding unyielding versions of secularism (laicité) on the political left. Today the most popular Socialist minister seems to be Interior Minister Manuel Valls, whose major activity is taking extra-strong measures against illegal migrants, mostly Muslim migrants, to France.
Furthermore, at a time when neo-con ideas seem to have passed their prime in U.S. politics, the French equivalent, centering on the slogan of responsabilité de protéger (RdP), has been getting stronger within France. One of its leading figure, Bernard Kouchner (founder of Doctors Without Borders), had been a foreign minister under Sarkozy. Another leading figure, Bernard-Henri Lévy, played a formidable pressure role on governmental politics under Sarkozy and still does under Hollande.
The greater explanation however may be external – the role France thinks it can still play on the world scene. Ever since 1945, France has strived to remain a major figure on the world scene. And in this effort, it always saw the United States as the major force trying to diminish its role. The reassertion of France’s world role was the primary concern of Charles de Gaulle. It was a goal he pursued in many ways, from early outreach to the Soviet Union to withdrawal of French troops from NATO. He wove a strong relationship with Israel during the Algerian war, at a time when the United States was pursuing a quite different policy. It was France that put together the Franco-British-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. To be sure, once Algeria gained its independence in 1962, France ended its special link to Israel, more concerned with renewing good relations with its North African former colonies.
This policy was not merely a Gaullist policy. Non-Gaullist (or anti-Gaullist) political figures like François Mitterand and Sarkozy adopted Gaullist stances on multiple occasions. From Churchill during the Second World War to Obama today, the United States and Great Britain have always found French leaders too rambunctious, too difficult to control for their taste.
What is permitting this current return to aggressiveness is precisely the decline of United States’ effective power on the world scene. Suddenly, France can seem more hardline against the enemy, now defined as the Islamic enemy, than the United States. Once again, after a long delay since 1962, Israel can see France as a better friend, if a less powerful friend, than the United States.
The problem for France is that although U.S. decline allows for a stronger rhetorical position for France, the new somewhat chaotic geopolitical scene is not one in which France can really replace the United States as the hardliner. There are too many other powerful nations involved in the Middle East for France to play a primary role there. Even less can France play a major role in East Asia, despite the fact that it had been a major colonial power there.
The one place where France can reassume a major role is Africa, because for the moment neither Great Britain nor the United States is as ready, for various reasons, to act with military force. France is seizing the opportunity. And Hollande, otherwise in increasing domestic unpopularity, finds support from public opinion for this role.
However, this kind of aggressive policy has a major downside, as the United States has discovered in the Middle East. It can be very difficult to withdraw one’s troops once they are there. And public opinion at home begins to sour on the interventions, seeing them as increasingly futile and unsuccessful.