Monday, February 10, 2014

The Martial French

Today's Times has an op-ed by François Heisbourg, an expert on foreign and military affairs at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. The basic argument of the piece is that France, despite its refusal to participate in the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, has more often than not been keen to intervene militarily abroad. What's more, Heisbourg contends, this readiness to use force is broadly supported by the public, in part because the refusal to go to war in Iraq has demonstrated that France maintains its independence of the US and decides to use force judiciously based on French national interests alone. As Heisbourg puts it,
The outlier in this pattern was France’s refusal to participate in President George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. While this may have imprinted on the American psyche a tabloid press impression of French membership in an “axis of weasel,” France’s robust opposition to the Iraq war has actually reinforced the French public’s trust in the executive’s judgment on matters of war and peace — in sharp contrast to popular attitudes in America and Britain, as we saw last August during the diplomatic crisis over Syria.
I am, to put it mildly, quite dubious of this argument. I don't agree that the French public trusts the executive's judgment. There is, for example, substantial opposition to French engagement in Afghanistan. As for the recent interventions in Mali and and the Central African Republic, the public is supportive only because these operations were quick, successful, and directed against weak adversaries who could be defeated with a relatively modest commitment of forces. Support for the Libyan operation was at best mixed, and "the executive" in that case, Nicolas Sarkozy, was widely criticized for acting precipitously on the advice of an outside meddler (Bernard-Henri Lévy) and without the knowledge of his foreign minister (Alain Juppé).

Foreign military intervention in France belongs to the chasse gardée of the presidency. It is one area where presidents can and do act with relatively little input from the ministries and public. Presidents naturally try to take credit for every successful intervention, but there is little evidence that this kind of success improves their image among French voters. Libya, though widely regarded as a "success" for Sarkozy, who cajoled and in some respects led an international coalition, did not enhance his approval rating. Neither Mali nor CAR has done anything for Hollande's dismal standing in the polls, to say nothing of Syria, which probably would have damaged him in the public's eyes if the attack he favored had gone ahead and then resulted, as it likely would have, in a protracted engagement with ambiguous results.

Heisbourg, it seems to me, is attempting to buff up the résumé of the French head of state in advance of his arrival in the US. The French, he says in essence, are not "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," to borrow the phrase made famous by The Simpsons. Indeed, they are not. But it's a bit of a stretch to apply the headline "martial prowess" to a president who intervenes successfully in former colonies against barely armed and disorganized irregulars to the widespread indifference of a jaundiced and apathetic public accustomed to such adventures over many decades (as Heisbourg documents in his article). I think Hollande is to be commended for his readiness to pay a small price to maintain order and encourage more democratic regimes in Africa. This modest but worthy achievement should be praised for what it is rather than magnified into something that it is not.


Francofou said...

At first, I read the Times headline as "Marital Prowess."

Art Goldhammer said...

Yes, so did I, but then I realized that couldn't be right since Hollande ... is not married.

FrédéricLN said...

I agree with your post, esp. on "a president who intervenes successfully in former colonies against barely armed and disorganized irregulars to the widespread indifference of a jaundiced and apathetic public accustomed to such adventures over many decades". Just the word "successfully" will require more time to be confirmed. I'm not sure whether the deaths count in Centrafrican Republic, for example, diminished or increased since our troops came in. (I did not look for these figures, if they exist).

Actually, that's the usual way the French approve military operations, at least since 1962, perhaps also since 1945 (Madagascar, Vietnam, Algeria…): they tolerate them as a disconvenient fact or truth, a price to pay for remaining a grande puissance or believing to be.

Directly criticizing the power for sending our troops is a typically marginal, "outsider" behaviour, such as Chevènement's during the first Gulf War, or the socialist L'Humanité's when we invaded now French-speaking Africa in the 1890's. The majority of the public, or media, that wants to feel itself "insiders", either approve or keep silent.

In a word, this history may be traced up to the feudal regimes. The end of conscription can only have reinforced that way of thinking and, moreover, doing.

FrédéricLN said...

Sadly, I found figures. According to UNHCR, the number of "déplacés" (refugees within the countries) doubled during the last months, from 400-500,000 to nearly 1 million. According to Le Figaro, 19 of 24 mosquees of Bangui have been destroyed. Cases of most awful crimes are constantly reported.

This Republic suffered violent robbery from the former Northern Seleka rebellion before and after its victory.

Now that these "Muslim" forces have been pushed back by the French Army, the situation is turning into a (1993) Burundi-like one, not to say (1994) Rwandan.

I saw in papers that Pierre Lellouche, with whom I seldomly agree, raised the concern. He's quite lonely still.