Sarkozy Goes to War: Is France Back Once More at the Center of World Affairs?

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France’s predominant role in international operations like the NATO-led mission over Libya–or this week’s United Nations helicopter strikes in Ivory Coast–have generated a flurry of media reports suggesting formerly Clark Kent-like French diplomats have shed their earlier mild mannered restraint, and have started wading into assorted conflicts with the energy and determination of Superman. And that re-found French confidence and swagger, some accounts propose, may be just what President Nicolas Sarkozy needs to boost his troubled re-election hopes.

So does what one piece terms France’s “More Muscular Policy” really signal Paris’ renaissance as an activist and heavyweight in foreign affairs? And does it actually provide Sarkozy an international boost through which he can recapture his domestic presidential title? The short answer is no, because what these accounts overlook in examining these supposedly new French engagements is that they’re more a reflection of how le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose than anything else.

True, the Sarkozy-driven international involvement in the Libyan conflict is recent. And there were doubtless ulterior political motives (some of them electoral) that went into the French president’s embrace of Libya’s opposition–as many accounts have noted (including my own blog posts).

But that doesn’t make it a dramatic uptick in increasingly adventurous French foreign policy as most accounts suggest (a flawed thesis that the FrumForum corrects with a bit more France-sneering than necessary). To support the “France Is On A Roll” theme, most stories cite French involvement in Afghanistan—a war Paris joined in 2001, a full election cycle before Sarkozy took over the presidency from successor Jacques Chirac. And if that’s not breaking news, this is: some legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling conservative majority have not only called for scaling down France’s Afghan deployment, but to begin preparing to shut it down altogether before long.

Similarly, French troop presence in Ivory Coast dates back to 2002—still well within the Chirac era. Meanwhile, those forces were subsumed by the UN peacekeeping mission mandated in 2004, which now boasts a far larger 9,000-plus soldiers than the smaller French contingent (1,650, and not counted as part of the UN total). France’s important role in the UN’s air strikes this week notwithstanding, anyone claiming the French presence and action within strict limitations of the UN’s Ivory Coast mandate is in reality a sign of blossoming French willingness to step outside and start knocking heads needs to pick the history book up again and start reading from Chapter One.

Moreover, Sarkozy’s successful effort to convince allies to intervene in Libya actually fits within his far wider (and older) collectivist view on international security issues—one that inspired him to bring France back into NATO as a fully integrated member in 2009. In contrast to earlier eras—when Paris reserved the right to deploy troops in former colonies experiencing unrest, and left larger conflicts to super powers to handle—Sarkozy considers the US-European alliance as vital in dealing with global conflict and instability, and sees the UN as a key partner in gaining broader backing and legitimacy for necessary intervention. Rather than becoming more adventurous and ready to strike out on its own, France has actually hitched its wagon to international organizations in a way that prohibits Paris from going it alone–and requires Sarkozy to pull out extraordinary stops to gain backing on rare interventions he believes in (as Libya demonstrated).

Does that mean recent press coverage of resurgent France got everything wrong? No. There are well-founded reasons to question whether Sarkozy’s actions on the international stage don’t hide more selfish, cynical motives–something I’ve noted here in the past as well. Similarly, his activist position on Libya followed three disastrous months of foreign policy missteps, scandals, and immobility by Sarkozy and his cabinet that the entire nation was eager to leave behind.

It’s also true that many of the recent reports have drawn inspiration from the fact that  Sarkozy is far less hesitant to accept confrontation—and military action—than most of his French political peers are comfortable with. And that pugnacious, take-charge action on Libya has led journalists to look for other examples of his foreign policy decisiveness–though usually in historically inappropriate places. Even among some French media, Sarkozy’s stand on Libya–and telescoping events in Ivory Coast–are generating relatively positive press and commentary over France’s renewed position in the center of affairs. But some observers warn that even the guardedly approving response to events could change should the international clashes central to them drag on, or involve a horrific escalation of violence.

“It’s worth noting that Sarkozy was one of the extremely rare French politicians who was if not in support of the war in Iraq, at very least was not opposed to the war against Saddam Hussein,” says Emile Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert with the Institute on International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “That hawkishness would have made him very unpopular if he’d been president when the Iraq war began, but is winning him applause in France today due to the universal hostility towards Gaddafi (and concern over the large French community in Ivory Coast). But that could prove short-lived if (these conflicts) turn into open-ended slogs. They could come back to haunt him.”

But even if they don’t, most French pundits are agreed that for Sarkozy to overcome his record-level unpopularity—and reverse what are fairly heavy odds against him winning re-election next year—he needs to address economic, employment, and other domestic issues looming largest in the minds of French voters.  International accomplishments, the consensus hold, will do him little good lacking improvement on the home front. Meaning, while it may be all the rage for media reports to depict France and Sarkozy as on an international interventionist roll, it’s unlikely many truly new examples of that will set trends to that end any time soon.