Monday, January 14, 2013

Flanby, le Martel de l'Infidèle

François Hollande was going to be a "normal" president. But French presidents aren't "normal," countered his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy. The French presidency was conceived as an exception, a supreme arbiter standing outside and above the petty and squalid bickering of the politicians. He was sovereign in the sense of Carl Schmitt: free to declare the exception to normality, to claim additional "emergency" powers in a situation that only he was authorized to define as an emergency.

Less than a year later, we have Hollande declaring an emergency in Mali and sending in French troops, while commentators seized immediately on the transformation of his image from soft and indecisive compromiser (who was saddled with the sobriquet "Flanby," borrowed from the name of a squiggly custard dessert) to hard-charging Rough Rider prepared to take on the west end of the Islamic crescent.
“This is the first occasion Hollande had or seized upon to act decisively, without the sort of waffling that had appeared to be his trademark,” said François Heisbourg, a defense expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “So in that sense, it changes his image instantaneously.”
In the hyperventilation that often accompanies these sudden image infusions, some commentators began to trace a genealogy of the new Hollande, who, it was said, had previously shown signs of backbone in other negotiations over labor market reform, gay marriage, taxation of the wealthy, etc. Why, before you know it, "Flanby" may have to be rebaptized "Hyperpresident II."

I counsel a little calm here. That war in Mali has only just begun, and already its difficulties are apparent. The territory to be pacified is vast; the ranks of the rebels include former government forces and weapons; France was invited into Mali by the feckless Malian government itself, whose reliability as a partner in French designs is open to question; and, finally, French military capabilities may not be up to the burdens of guerrilla warfare in remote desert terrain. What sort of sacrifice for Mali can Hollande ultimately justify, if vital French interests are not threatened? Support for "African democracy," mentioned prominently in Hollande's weekend announcement, may wear thin as the French learn more about the true nature of democracy in Mali. As French public opinion evolves, so, too, will the positions of neighboring African states.

I don't know if it is possible to have a quagmire in a desert, but Mali may offer an example.