How France's foreign policy turned more hawkish

Americans often assume that French foreign policy is pacifist, but the country's interventions in Africa and the Middle East have garnered strong public support. 

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Students of the special military school of Saint-Cyr march during the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

French president Francois Hollande vowed to step up military campaigns in Iraq and Syria in a speech on Thursday night, just hours after a man drove a truck into a crowd of people in the city of Nice, killing 84 people.  

"We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria," said Hollande. "We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil."

His prompt linking of the attack to France's military incursions was notable, coming without a public declaration of responsibility from any armed group, but the hawkish tone was not unprecedented. Following the mass shootings on civilians in Paris by the so-called Islamic State in November, France ramped up its bombing campaign in Syria, launching dozens of air strikes on IS locations in Raqqa.

That might come as a surprise to many Americans who may still associate France's foreign policy with its unwillingness to join a US-led war coalition in Iraq. In a 2003 Gallup poll, only 7 percent of French respondents said they supported the United States' unilateral invasion there, with 60 percent saying they would oppose it even if the UN joined the effort. 

But Hollande's decision in November wasn't out of tune with public sentiment. About three-fourths of the French public backed intensified military actions, as applications to join the military surged, according to a poll by YouGov.

Some analysts say that the roots of the French president's willingness to use military force can be traced back to the 2013 intervention in Mali.

Last November, after gunmen attacked a hotel in the capital of Bamako, The Washington Post noted the country's "important symbolic power with the French."

"France's 2013 operation in Mali had proven to be something remarkably rare: a military intervention that was cautiously considered a success. Coming hot on the heels of the robust French involvement in Libya, the unilateral intervention in Mali in 2013 seemed to confirm Paris's willingness to be forceful on the world stage," the Post reported at the time.

In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg rebels and local Al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar ed-Din were seizing large swaths of territory in Mali's north, imposing their own form of sharia law in the areas that fell under their control.

France's ties to Mali have remained deep after the former colony achieved independence in 1960. Hollande, a centrist from the Socialist party, had campaigned as a non-interventionist, predicting that France would in time pull its troops from Africa entirely, as a 2013 report from the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center notes.

But in January 2013, with the rebel alliance threatening to encroach on Bamako, Hollande made the decision to intervene, sending in troops to reverse the rebels' territorial gains. Within three weeks, they quashed the rebellion, and forces from the UN and across Africa took over peacekeeping duties.

In July of that year, the Malian government held new elections – a welcome development for international observers, since the rebels' gains had earlier incited frustrated Malian generals to seize power in a coup against the government.

With deteriorated conditions in Libya – where Hollande's predecessor joined a US-led effort to help local rebels depose dictator Muammar Qaddafi – the intervention has come to stand alone as a model for Western counterinsurgency efforts: short, with narrowly defined aims and few French casualties.

In justifying it, Hollande had warned of the danger in letting groups such as Al-Qaeda develop a sanctuary in the former colony. But David J. Francis, author of the NPRC report and director of the John & Elnora Ferguson Centre for African Studies at the University of Bradford, told the Christian Science Monitor that the decision may have been motivated, in part, by a desire to revive confidence in his leadership at home and protect French economic interests in neighboring Niger. 

At the time, Dr. Francis noted, Hollande's approval ratings were sagging to historic lows. Much of the public saw his government as inactive, and incapable of pulling the country of its economic crisis.

"The intervention was purely for domestic political reasons," he says. "But he presented an almost apocalyptic vision: 'they're six hours from France; if we allow a terroristic takeover in Bamako, Mali, there's a direct flight to Paris.'"

Hollande was not the only leader to fear that the region could become a breeding ground for militant groups determined to target cities in Europe. 

"Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist Al Qaeda problem in parts of North Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong," then-Prime Minister David Cameron told the British Parliament in January 2013, offering his support for the intervention.

France's experience in Operation Serval, as the intervention was known, may have helped inspire other foreign military ventures. 

"After the success in Mali," says Francis, "[Hollande] thought, 'Okay, we can do it in the Central African Republic,' and now Syria. If they are a success, it gives them the opportunity and the kudos to do something more."

For the French public, the threat of terrorism is a compelling rationale. Violent attacks on civilians over the past few years have boosted public support for military involvement in Syria and Iraq. As late as 2013, 64 percent of the public opposed military action in Syria, even with UN approval. By the spring of 2015, months before the Paris attacks, polls by BVA showed a majority favored it.

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