Why you should care
As the U.S. and the rest of Europe lose their appetite for intervention overseas, the French are diving head first into some of the globe’s prickliest conflicts. But can France sustain such a muscular foreign policy?
“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
Less than a decade ago, the term – coined by the writers of The Simpsons, who else? – epitomized American disgust with France, its chief foe in the debate over the Iraq War.
My, how times have changed.
With French troops on the ground in Mali and now the Central African Republic, French President Francois Hollande’s enthusiastic support for the aborted U.S. strikes in Syria and French diplomats’ tough line on negotiations with Iran, the same Washington politicians who once made a show of re-naming french fries “freedom fries” are now declaring “Vive la France!”
Security experts say current geopolitical circumstances have as much to do with this changing perception as any shift in French policy.
“I want to commend the French for their efficiency and their quick response” in Mali, conservative Texas Congressman Ted Poe said earlier this year at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
“Thank God for France,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared on CNN last month after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius blocked an initial deal with the Iranians to temporarily freeze their nuclear program, which he – not to mention conservatives in Israel and Stateside – worried gave away too much to Tehran.
France’s muscular agenda abroad comes as the United States ratchets back its military ambitions in the wake of 10-plus taxing years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Security experts say current geopolitical circumstances have as much to do with this changing perception as any shift in French policy.
France has always been proactive in Africa, where it used to be a major colonial power.
It’s true that “we’re really seeing a much more robust and activist French foreign policy,” says Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Washington, D.C. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. That approach has been consistent under both former President Nicolas Sarkozy, of the center-right UMP party, and now Socialist President Francois Hollande. But Conley says what’s made it much more stark is that it comes at a time when United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries are pulling back from the world. “That’s why it seems so much bolder to us,” she says.
Indeed, France has always been proactive in Africa, where it used to be a major colonial power. It is especially active in areas that were once under French control that still maintain close ties to Paris. In Mali, French troops joined an African Union force to beat back Islamists that had taken over half the country last year. In the Central African Republic, the French military is now trying to restore order after a coup earlier this year paved the way for virtual anarchy.
The French also are feeling very much secondary to Germany … in terms of shaping the agenda in the EU.
France actually maintains an extensive network of military bases across the African continent, notes Jeff Lightfoot, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, another D.C. think tank. That’s become more significant as the global fight against terror expands across North and Central Africa.
And the French have a history of intervening in former colonies to support their favored dictators through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, says Lightfoot.
Then there are European rivalries. “I think the French also are feeling very much secondary to Germany … in terms of European debate, in terms of shaping the agenda in the EU,” Lightfoot observes. “That is not true in defense and security policy,” he says, which “allows France to strut its stuff.”
The Iraq War aside, “France has not been shy about using force to protect its interests,” he says. And as much as the French, themselves may resist it, those interests are now global in scale – both because France sells goods around the world and is home to multinational companies like pharmaceutical giant Sanofi and energy conglomerate Areva.
They can do so in part thanks to the power of the French executive branch, experts says, which unlike the American president or the British prime minister, is not hemmed in by its legislature. Syria – where the U.S. Congress and the U.K. Parliament checked the push to war despite France’s exhortations – is a prime example.
But while the French president has plenty latitude, the French people are no more gung-ho for military adventurism than their counterparts across the English Channel or the Atlantic. Hollande “did get sort of a blip” upward in his favorability ratings in France after the Mali intervention – widely lauded for effectiveness – says Conley. But now his polling is at historic lows, buffeted by the kind of economic and employment crises wracking much of Europe.
The death of two French paratroopers in the Central African Republic Monday will further test French resolve there. And there are major question marks about whether France can maintain its proactive stance in both Africa and the Middle East, where defense officials are making a new push to expand their influence.
The same economic challenges that have dragged down Hollande’s domestic popularity also threaten future defense budgets. Though the French have avoided defense cuts on the scale of Britain or others in Europe, they may be overly optimistic about what they can spend in 2014, says Lightfoot.
In its defense policy white paper released last spring, the Hollande government disclosed plans to reduce the French army from 80,000 to 66,000 by 2019. All told, France has approximately 200,000 people in its Armed Forces.
“Can they sustain this, can they afford this?” He asks of the current French military posture. “I honestly don’t know.”