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With Recent Military Action, France Reasserts Global Leadership Role

April 7, 2011 at 6:29 PM EDT
France has displayed increasing willingness to use its military to respond to conflicts from Libya to Ivory Coast. Margaret Warner discusses the new display of strength with The Sorbonne's Frederic Bozo and the Washington Post's Jim Hoagland.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains France’s military assertiveness on multiple fronts?

For that, we turn to Frederic Bozo, a professor of history and international relations at the Sorbonne in Paris. He’s currently a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. And Jim Hoagland, a contributing editor and columnist at The Washington Post, he was the Post’s Paris bureau chief from 1975 to ’79 and recently was awarded France’s Legion of Honor.

Welcome to you both.

Jim Hoagland, I’m going to start with you, even though you’re the American here. Why do you think we’re seeing this assertiveness on the part of the French right now?

JIM HOAGLAND, The Washington Post: Well, there are two things, at least two factors here. One of them is the country. The other is the leader at this time.

France is a country that has a past being involved in world affairs, wanting to count in world affairs, and being willing to pay its way for defense forces and to use those forces abroad. So, France plays a natural role in that. At a time when governments are slashing defense spending and reducing troops, France still wants to occupy an important role in world affairs.

The other part of it is the personality, or, rather, the temperament, really, of Nicolas Sarkozy. If you sit down with an interview — to interview Sarkozy, it’s like sitting down with a bottle of nitroglycerin on the couch in front of you.


JIM HOAGLAND: He’s constantly in motion, constantly thinking. People call him impulsive. I think there’s some justice to that description. But he’s also a man who takes pride in his ability to manage crisis.

He did well in the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, when he played a mediating role there. This is a chance for him to show on the world stage that he is a real leader, and that that may help him overcome the lagging popularity that is showing in the polls. His approval rating today is down to about 30 percent.

And one other factor, the administration that he heads has had tremendous problems in the African, North African countries of Tunisia and Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Bozo, what would you add to that? And how unusual it this for the French to be in three shooting conflicts at once?

FREDERIC BOZO, The Sorbonne: Yes. Well, it is.

But the surprise in this country is big, I think, because people have memories of the Iraq crisis of 2003, when France really opposed the U.S.-led operation in Iraq and — and…

MARGARET WARNER: And tried to scuttle at the U.N. any resolution.

FREDERIC BOZO: Yes, absolutely, denied legitimacy to the operation.

So, people tend to forget, as Jim said, France is — actually — actually has a record of interventionism, both during the Cold War and after the Cold War. It’s a medium-sized power, but it’s one of those medium-sized powers, like Britain, which has pretty much a global military clout, although a much smaller one than the U.S., and is able to operate in those circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you think explains — going to the ’03 example with the Iraq war, President Chirac had a very different approach.

FREDERIC BOZO: And it was a very different context.

The case for the invasion of Iraq was based on the allegation of the existence of WMD, which the French were skeptical of. There was no international legitimacy, no authorization by the Security Council. In this present circumstance, in Libya, it’s a very different setup.

There was, of course, a U.N. mandate. There was a…

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, France helped push the U.N. to do this. So, it wasn’t just France said, oh, OK, we will answer the call. They were helping generate the call.

FREDERIC BOZO: Yes, they were, because they probably thought the case was an important one.

Now, this brings us to the motivations of the move. And, of course, there are national motivations, domestic motivations. Some of them, Jim has mentioned. I think it’s more of a political, really, vision that Sarkozy is defending. There’s of course the issue of, you know, humanitarian intervention.

But I think there is the more important strategic issue of the relationship between North Africa and Europe. I think the bottom line is the French, as other European leaders, have understood that in the past stability came from the status quo. Now the status quo cannot bring stability to the region, but transitions can. And helping transition in Libya is vital.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Hoagland, going back to, in January — well, first, I want to hear your theory about why the difference with the Iraq war.

But in January, also, if we think about Ivory Coast, Sarkozy had a group of journalists in, and he said a colonial power is not justified in making a judgment on the internal affairs of the former colony.

April, they’re leading the charge in a former colony. Just pick up on all this.

JIM HOAGLAND: Well, Sarkozy has changed French policy both toward Africa and toward the Arab world. And that plays in this very importantly.

He has actually tried to stay out of intervening in Africa, in contrast to many of his predecessors. He’s been — in the Ivory Coast, I think, he has really been dragged into this. After all, U.N. forces were also striking at the army of Gbagbo, because they felt endangered.

France is supporting the U.N. role there, more than trying to play a neocolonial role there. I think Sarkozy would have preferred to pass on that one, but…

MARGARET WARNER: And the Arab world? You said…

JIM HOAGLAND: The Arab world — France is — under Chirac — you mentioned Jacques Chirac — France saw itself as having a privileged position in the Arab world. It had an Arab policy that said we will be friends with the Arab regime.

The first — one of the first things that Nicolas Sarkozy did when he came to office was to change that, to say, we also want to be friends with Israel. We want to be friends with the United States.

He’s done a lot to renew the American-French relationship, and many Arab countries think at their expense.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Bozo, when Sarkozy says, as he did at the Paris meetings, that France is ready, is committed to playing its role before history, is he speaking for himself in that — those sort of sweeping terms, or is he trying to touch something in the French psyche?

FREDERIC BOZO: No, of course, there is something in the French psyche, as you say, you know, that resonates when Sarkozy speaks like he does, the notion that France has a role it play, and a sense — not unlike the U.S., there’s a kind of French exceptionalism, dating back to the French Revolution.

This is a country of human rights, that created human rights, like the U.S. did. And, therefore, there’s a sort of an international mission. International order, human rights, all these themes play well in the French psyche, as you say.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Jim Hoagland, fair to say that the way he’s done some of these moves has irritated some of the allies?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think it is fair to say that, and particularly at the White House here in Washington.

I think there are two important points that need to be made about that, though. One is that the reason you’re seeing France taking on such a much larger role is that other countries, including the United States, are not willing to do it anymore. And Sarkozy is trying to fill that vacuum, to some extent.

The two presidents, Obama and Sarkozy, had a couple of very rough telephone conversations last week about the limits that Obama is trying to impose on the American role, withdrawing certain combat aircraft from strikes against the Libyan forces.

At the end of the day, I think there’s some kind of creative tension at work here that probably does both sides some good, with Obama being quite restrained, Obama, in contrast to this impulsive, impetuous Frenchman that many people see, being the cold, analytical person working for restraint.

So, he imposes some restraint on what NATO can do, and Sarkozy is constantly trying to push the limit on that. It leads to some strained relations, although, interestingly enough, on that March 19 Saturday, when French warplanes took off, Hillary Clinton was in Paris and had a long talk with Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hillary Clinton at that point and the State Department were much more on the side of intervention than the White House was.


JIM HOAGLAND: And, in the course of that conversation, I gather it became clear to Sarkozy that he should talk to Obama and try to get the Americans much more involved than they were, and to some good effect, I think, at the end of the day.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s wrap up just by — let me ask both of you, all right, now the U.S. has taken its major military assets. And, certainly, France and Britain are providing most of the muscle. We hear the rebels complaining that the airstrikes aren’t tough enough, aren’t targeted enough and so on.

Does France have the ability to carry out this role to the end that it sought so eagerly?

FREDERIC BOZO: It is a paradox, actually, that NATO should be blamed for being too cautious, whereas, of course, the French didn’t want to involve NATO in the first place, because they thought it wouldn’t be acceptable for the Arabs.

So, it’s the reverse, really. I think, militarily, yes, they can do this. The issue is really, particularly, can Britain and France sustain a long campaign, with the U.S. really only in the backdrop? That is — it’s a political question, more than a military one.


JIM HOAGLAND: The French and the British do need and NATO does need American intelligence support, AWACS, needs logistical support. It’s getting that.

What’s changed is the target environment in Libya. It is now much more difficult to stage airstrikes. They have moved from the desert, where they’re sitting ducks, sitting tanks, as it were, into the cities. It’s much more difficult to strike there. And that is part of the reason for the American reticence.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.

Jim Hoagland, Frederic Bozo, thank you.

JIM HOAGLAND: Thank you.