Why France moved forcefully on Ivory Coast, Libya

While it was late in embracing movements that ousted old allies in Tunisia and Egypt, France has led on Ivory Coast and Libya. How much are domestic politics influencing this role?

Francois Mor/AP
Pro-Gbagbo protesters, one of them holding a defaced poster depicting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attend a demonstration to condemn French military action in Abidjan next to the French Defense Ministry in Paris, on Thursday, April 7. Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo remained holed up as Ivorian fighters are trying to install the elected president Alassane Ouattara.

With its aircraft in the skies of Libya and Ivory Coast, France has suddenly escaped diplomatic obscurity to find itself taking a leading role in two military ventures that have arguably tipped the scales on behalf of civilians.

This comes after France was embarrassingly late in embracing pro-democracy protests that successfully ousted its old allies in Egypt and Tunisia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his aides at the Élysée Palace have emerged from that diplomatic fumble to help engineer intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and are showing a new, more robust international profile.

For France, the two military actions followed the same script. It moved swiftly after 11th hour United Nations resolutions authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians and worked in tandem with other countries or multinational forces. And in both cases, reputedly unstable leaders appeared bent on blocking the people's will.

"In Libya and in Ivory Coast, France has played big. It is in the process, at least in Abidjan [Ivory Coast's capital], of scoring a success that will have a world impact," said military analyst Pierre Rousselin in the pro-Sarkozy daily Le Figaro.

French analysts are divided not on whether, but the degree to which domestic politics is motivating Mr. Sarkozy. He is making bold moves at time when his popularity at home is low. The UN resolutions have inspired in him a new determination to intercede in select crises that favor France’s military capability. France has long been known for “punching above its weight” on the global stage and doing so in a way that appears to bolster its international aims and French values and interests.

Sarkozy vowed when elected to restore a French international profile that had withered in opposition to the US-led Iraq war. The public here is generally opposed to operations in Afghanistan, where 4,000 troops are based, but appear to tacitly accept and even applaud action in Libya and Ivory Coast where France has a history and some notions of a sphere of influence.

“The French Army has the means of intervening at the same time in Ivory Coast, in Libya, and in Afghanistan,” says French air brigadier Jean-Vincent Brisset. But, he added, "It is obvious there are limits and that … multiple fronts can’t be sustained over long periods of time.”

Just as President Obama called on America’s “unique capabilities” to help a European request to intervene in Libya to save lives in Benghazi, Sarkozy has employed unique French capabilities in Ivory Coast, a former colony that has maintained French investment as well as military garrisons.

On Tuesday, France woke to find that French helicopter gunships hit former President Laurent Gbagbo’s forces just days after passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1975, which called for the use of French forces in an intervention in Ivory Coast. France's military action, which followed months of French neutrality, would seem to clear the way for elected president Alassane Ouattara to take office, and to avoid a civil war that was starting to spin out of control.

On March 19, Sarkozy ordered air strikes on Libyan targets, ahead of everyone, to stop a bloodbath in Benghazi. “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 … it is our duty,” intoned Sarkozy at the end of a Paris conference on Libya, even as French jets were in the air over the Mediterranean.

The French response was generally accepting, with even Sarkozy critic and leading intellectual Dominique Moisi calling it “the only way forward.”

In Ivory Coast, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the decision to involve France was “… a direct consequence of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power and allow a peaceful transition … The country has been plunged into violence with a heavy toll on civilian population.”

Only in February France’s diplomacy was seen as in tatters. French leaders were tongue-tied as young people in Tunisia and Egypt lost their fear and upended long-time dictators. French diplomats had been caught on junkets with Egyptian and Tunisian autocrats; Sarkozy ordered his officials to vacation in France.

Meanwhile a cabal of current and former foreign ministry officials wrote a jeremiad: “Europe is powerless, Africa evades us, the Mediterranean steers clear of us, China tames us, and Washington ignores us! … the voice of France has disappeared in the world.”

In fact, France has always harbored significant power projection on the world stage; it has military bases across the Pacific and Africa, in far-flung former colonies, and it rivals or perhaps now exceeds that of Great Britain. France, unlike Britain, retains a carrier, and it has 10 submarines.

More than this, analysts point out, France’s robust moves allow Sarkozy and France to “break out” of a recently diminished sense of itself as a junior partner in Europe to Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany doesn’t project power overseas, but France can. There’s a powerful strain among French who feel their country has a role in bringing European values to the larger world.

Internationally, "we hadn't seen much happening from the German side," says Davis Lewin of the Henry Jackson Society in London, "and the French are saving lives."

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