With his announcement of the pullout of French combat troops from Afghanistan by year-end, President François Hollande yesterday concluded an intense four-day introduction to global affairs, less than a week after taking office.
“We consider that our mission, in terms of action and combat, is over,” Mr. Hollande said of France’s military intervention in Afghanistan at a press conference at the end of the NATO summit in Chicago.
Hollande, who isn’t recognized in France for his diplomacy expertise and was unknown beyond its borders until a few weeks ago, was given credit by French experts and media for the way he handled his first appearance on the world stage. He appeared successful in making his two main points during meetings with world leaders from Friday to Monday: advocating for growth-oriented policies at the G-8 summit and making France’s early withdrawal from Afghanistan official at the NATO summit.
Hollande's 'mission accomplished' moment?
Fabio Liberti, a Paris-based expert on defense and European issues, says Hollande managed to convey the need to promote economic growth over the austerity-only approach that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany favors.
“You often had the feeling during these four days that Angela Merkel was isolated, which is fairly positive for François Hollande,” says Mr. Liberti, a research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. “It seems like an Hollande-Obama relationship was tied. It’s not bad at all for a world stage debut.”
French newspapers published photos of Hollande and President Barack Obama smiling and shaking hands and stressed the similarity of the two leaders' views on the need to boost economic growth in Europe. The front page of the Sunday edition of Le Monde, France’s most prestigious daily newspaper, read, “An alliance for growth.”
At a press conference at the end of the G-8 summit on May 19, Hollande went as far as to suggest that he had already fulfilled one of his goals of promoting growth as president. “There will be no growth without confidence and there will be no confidence without growth,” Hollande said. “And I consider that the mandate that I had received from the people has been, in this first phase, already fulfilled.”
Hollande’s words prompted a statement yesterday from former leader Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party criticizing Hollande for being satisfied with himself, although there has not yet been any change in economic policy.
“To dare say that the mandate is fulfilled when no concrete decision has been taken yet or no single strategic orientation has been set up, is at the very least presumptuous,” the statement said.
On Afghanistan, a matter of semantics
Observers noted that between the presidential campaign and NATO summit, Hollande adjusted his position on France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, now drawing a distinction between combat troops and non-combat troops.
Yves Boyer, a defense and international relations expert, said differentiating between the two is a way for Hollande to show that he kept his promise to French voters while staying on good terms with his NATO allies.
“I find this distinction between combat troops and troops with a support role a little strange,” says Mr. Boyer, associate director of the Foundation for Strategic Research and professor of international relations at France’s Polytechnic School. “I think this is political wording aiming to mask the fact that the French will indeed leave but that a number of military elements – I prefer that term – will stay there to maybe help train (Afghan soldiers).”
Boyer says French troops are still at risk while training Afghan soldiers, despite the shift away from a combat role.
On Dec. 29, 2011, two French soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier, an attack for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. Less than a month later, an Afghan soldier opened fire on French soldiers, killing four and wounding 14. A fifth soldier who was wounded in the attack later died, according to a news release by the French ministry of defense.
A total of 83 French soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the beginning of the NATO intervention in 2001.