Modesty is not the French way. But Paris demurred in claiming credit for the arrest of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo on Monday. Not one French soldier set foot in the residence where Mr. Gbagbo was apprehended, a French commander emphasized.
Yet French helicopters hovered over the presidential residence as Gbagbo was taken into custody. French and United Nations helicopters had fired rockets on the residence and palace.
Clearly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not want to raise the specter of imperialism in this former French colony. But the Ivorian despot would still be defying election results and waging civil war were it not for French military intervention.
In recent weeks, the world has observed an unusually robust France in Africa. Along with London, Paris pushed for a no-fly zone in Libya, and the French flew the first sortie to protect Libyan civilians under a UN resolution. With its troops in Afghanistan, France is now more militarily active in the world than at any time since the 1950s.
But it is hardly projecting the “great nation” image of its history. Instead, it’s more like la petite grande nation – reflecting circumstances that limit what might otherwise be a purely ideological impulse to spread the values of this democracy born of revolution.
Notice that in Ivory Coast, Libya, and Afghanistan, France is acting under UN resolutions and with other countries – mostly avoiding chest-beating.
Indeed, today French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe decried his NATO partners for not doing more to help in Libya. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet complained that France and Britain were carrying “the brunt of the burden.”
He criticized the reduced American military participation – the United States is playing only a “supportive” role now. The defense minister said this made it impossible to “loosen” the rebel city of Misrata from attacks by the forces of Col. Muammar Qaddafi and thus protect civilians there.
True, ideology is playing a role in France’s military excursions on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea. As French jets headed over the sea to Libya, President Sarkozy put their mission in terms of universal values. He sounded much like an American president:
“The Arab peoples have chosen to liberate themselves from servitude in which they had been chained.... France has decided to take on its role before history,” he said.
But other factors are also motivators. The pugnacious president is at his lowest in public approval ratings, and, at least at the start of the Libya campaign, two-thirds of the public approved. Meanwhile, the capitulation of Gbagbo after months of intransigence will likely make Sarkozy look good at home.
Some theorize that Sarkozy was eager to act in Libya and Ivory Coast because he was publicly embarrassed by delayed French support for the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
But historic ties and interests likely play a much greater role. Libya was not a former colony, but France needs its oil and fears being overrun by its refugees. In Ivory Coast, it has 15,000 French citizens as well as business interests. Today it announced an aid package to begin the recovery process there.
The US, Africa, and democracy promoters across the Middle East should be grateful for France’s new assertiveness. In Libya, Paris is showing that the international community cares about preventing humanitarian disasters and furthering democratic values. It’s the same in Ivory Coast. Washington, meanwhile, has a budget battle to fight and knows it can’t afford to be the world’s only policeman.
And yet, counting on the French to lead in the future would be a mistake. As these cases show, military intervention depends on a whole host of factors, including politics, historical ties, and national interest. In that, Paris is no different from Washington.