Napoleon Complex

In the Magazine
France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during a meeting called "Reporters of Hopes, Solutions for France" at Iena Palace in Paris. REUTERS/Francois Mori/Pool

Which world leader is still willing to mobilize his military to stand up for freedom, democracy, and its national way? Hint: He is an unapologetic Socialist who rules over a country that, until recently, Americans said was populated by "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."

Under President François Hollande, France has emerged as the most interventionist leader of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Unpopular at home, he has reveled in foreign adventures, overseas.

France's former right-of-center president, Nicolas Sarkozy, all but erased the old image - so strongly etched in America during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War - of a country that perennially shies away from a fight. Far from changing direction, Sarkozy's successor, Hollande is intensifying military involvement in former French colonies and beyond.

Hollande's domestic critics - and there are many - accuse him of trying to deflect attention from the country's economic woes, some dismissing him as a French neoconservative. But Hollande knows that foreign adventures won't save him politically, and in some cases they are extremely unpopular at home.

France's renewed interventionism and willingness to deploy troops in North Africa and the Middle East contrast starkly with the new mood in the United States, which seeks to withdraw from involvement in foreign wars and is loath to committing to new ones - except for drone-based skirmishes, with terrorists safely at one remove.

For France, the Arab Spring that started in December 2010 was much closer to home that it was for America, explains Gerard Araud, the French U.N. ambassador. Not only is the region just next door, but a large Arab population, mostly from northern Africa, resides in France. "Usually we were relying on the Americans to go" when world crises erupted, Araud told me. "Now the Americans were not going."

In 2011, Sarkozy and his British partners pushed President Barack Obama to intervene in Libya. French pilots were the backbone of the NATO-led air assault that led to the rebels' victory over despot Muammar al-Qaddafi. The ensuing deterioration of civil society and the murderous chaos in Libya has convinced Obama's inner circle to stay away from major military commitments abroad. Not so France.

When Syria used chemical weapons in August in clear violation of Obama's "red line," the president initially threatened a military strike, then decided to seek congressional approval for the action, which he failed to secure. The move followed a similar political failure by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sought and failed to acquire parliamentary approval for military action.

Hollande had no such inhibitions. Although his approval numbers hover near 20 percent - due to low economic growth and high unemployment -  and more than two thirds of French voters oppose military involvement in Syria, the president announced he would commit assets and pilots to a U.S.-led air strike in Syria without seeking the advice or consent of legislators.

After asking America for so long to get more involved in supporting the rebels, France couldn't deny his request to join in a military strike. Then Obama reversed himself, leaving Hollande furious. And when Syria later admitted it held chemical weapons and the U.N. decided to destroy them, French officials remained more skeptical of the deal behind closed doors than diplomats from other major powers, according to several sources.

This week's revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been bugging French citizens and officials, including in New York and Washington, have chilled relations between the U.S. and France. Although Secretary of State John Kerry reminded everyone during a visit to Paris that France is "one of our oldest allies," and Hollande reportedly signaled that intelligence cooperation will continue, the episode may have reawakened some anti-American emotions in Paris, which are never too far from the surface.

While France is not ready, yet, to intervene militarily in Syria without America's backing, it is happily doing so elsewhere. Talking of a brewing crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) last week, Hollande said, "There is a political emergency because there is no state." With South African President Jacob Zuma at his side, Hollande announced an immediate beefing up of the French military presence in the CAR, in an attempt to stabilize the country.

Even after Hollande's announcement, the French footprint in the CAR will remain small - up to 1,000 troops from the 450 that are there now. But Paris is pushing the U.N. Security Council to add peacekeepers, mostly from Africa, which, led by the French troops, will try to bring an end to the chaos.

The civil war that has turned the CAR into a chaotic and deadly country largely pits Muslims against Christians. It is fought in a region where al-Qaeda's presence is growing. By trying to stabilize its former colony, France hopes to stave off Islamist advances that threaten the West.

Earlier this year, France almost single-handedly succeeded in halting an al-Qaeda threat in Mali, another of its former African colonies, and last month Hollande declared that the war there was over. Far from being like President George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" moment, Hollande's announcement was the celebration of a surprisingly easy victory and a well-executed military operation in difficult terrain.

Last year, northern Malian rebels, many of them of the minority Tuareg tribes, along with their much more formidable al-Qaeda-affiliated allies, got close to the Mali capital, Bamako, almost overthrowing the weak government there. In January, Hollande sent in 4,000 elite French troops who swept the rebels away.

The disputes between the southern Malians and the indigenous northern Tuareg remained largely unresolved after France started to withdraw from the country in August. But the Islamist fighters that were drawn to the African country from Afghanistan and elsewhere suffered a major defeat.

Some of the defeated al-Qaeda fighters simply withdrew to the mountains, hoping to return to southern Mali once the French withdraw. But Hollande vowed to remain vigilant, and Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who assumed power in August in what is generally seen as a fair election, can now rely on 950 French troops stationed in neighboring Chad, ready to return if the government is threatened again. The permanent French force in Chad "is our aircraft carrier, ready to go anywhere in the region," said Araud.

Critics say France only ever advances its own interests, rather than those of the West in general, but it's tough not to detect a touch of envy among Washington's few remaining globalist hawks. "France is still in the business of intervening in its former colonies," said former American U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. "If someone explained this to Obama, he would be certain to oppose it." 

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni

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