With the British parliament’s no vote on Syria intervention, France has become President Obama’s most important ally as he plans strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime. And if the U.S. Congress follows in the footsteps of their British counterparts and votes against a military operation, France would emerge as the major military power most willing to intervene to punish the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
French President François Hollande doesn’t have to get his Parliament’s approval before launching an attack, and he clearly stated in an interview with Le Monde last week that he was “ready” to “punish” Assad. He will not go it alone, but if America does go ahead with the attack, France would embark on its third high-profile military operation in less than three years, after Libya in 2011 and Mali earlier this year.
That marks quite a rebranding, at least in American eyes. A decade ago, France infuriated the Bush administration with its opposition to the war against Saddam Hussein. Angry Americans smeared Jacques Chiarac’s country as a nation of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Now it has effectively taken on the role of Europe’s interventionist gorilla.
What changed? In fact, not much. France’s 2003 wariness, more than its 2013 willingness, seems to be the anomaly. One doesn’t have to go as far back as the Napoleonic Wars to realize France’s military has never been out of action for too long. For much of that time, Paris was criticized for doing too much armed meddling, not too little. The country’s history of intervention in Africa, along with its support for anti-democratic regimes there, has often attracted criticism of neocolonialism in the last decades.
In the early 1990’s, France backed (both military and political) the Rwandan regime responsible for the genocide that wiped out up to 20% of the country’s population. France has been constantly present in Cote d’Ivoire since 2002, with up to 5,000 troops at a time. They were initially sent to protect foreign citizens, but ended up playing an important role in overthrowing ex-President Laurent Gbagbo.
But there has been a real shift since Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed “l’Américain,” came to power in 2007. In one of his first foreign policy speeches, he announced before the U.S. Congress that France was going to return to NATO’s military command after four decades of self-imposed exile.
In 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi intensified his violent campaign to suppress revolts in Libya, Sarkozy made sure not to repeat the same mistake he made in Tunisia a few months earlier (he lost a fair amount of diplomatic credibility there for having supported Ben Ali right up to the moment the Tunisian president was forced out of his country by a revolution). France spearheaded the UN and NATO-backed operation that led to Gaddafi’s death.
What’s more surprising is that the socialist Hollande is following in Sarkozy’s footsteps. For Jean-Pierre Maulny, co-director of IRIS, one of France’s leading strategic research institutes, this is because “many of the defense and foreign affairs ministries’ top civil servants have kept their positions” despite the change in power. In January 2013, Hollande decided to send French troops on their own to rid Mali of extremist groups that had taken control of the northern part of the country. (Washington sent cargo planes, but no ground troops.)
But while interventions in Libya and Syria can be attributed to France’s new readiness to assume responsibilities in cases of violations of human rights, Mali was different. “There was a direct threat to national security,” notes Maulny.
France recorded a swift success in Mali, and Hollande’s dismal approval ratings improved temporarily. Today, even before an intervention In Syria, latest polls suggest he already gained a bit of popularity just by talking tough.
“The best case for a diversionary war is when a leader is unpopular for economic reasons as opposed to personal scandals, which does fit Hollande's situation,” explains David Burbach, associate professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He will certainly take this into account as pressure is growing for him to call a Parliamentary vote of his own.
The French public doesn’t seem to mind sending a few regiments out every now and then, either. Public support for the wars in Mali (the last time troops were rolled out on the ground) and to a lesser extent Afghanistan was high when these operations started, even though it progressively dropped. On Libya, the public was opposed to an intervention, but massively rallied behind Sakozy’s decision as soon as French planes began bombing.
One reason France gets involved in these conflicts is also because it can. It is the only country in Europe along with Britain capable of projecting significant military force in most parts of the world. Its unique knowledge of its ex-colonies’ specificities and topography, especially in West Africa, give it a significant military edge over most other western powers in these places.
But the big question is whether it will be able to sustain its interventionism despite the ongoing downsizing of its army. The total number of military and defense staff has dropped from 500.000 in 1999 to 324.000 today. A six-month budget adopted last month plans to reduce this number to 242.000 in 2019, of which 66.000 will be operational troops.
As in many other European countries (and to the great concern of NATO officials), military spending has not escaped the government’s efforts to reduce budget deficits, and has been frozen for the next three years.
With its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and its status as a nuclear-weapon state, there’s little doubt France will remain Europe’s main military power alongside Britain in the foreseeable future, and will probably continue to intervene in some of its favorite playgrounds like West Africa.
Military planners insist staff cuts will not hinder the country’s ability to project military might. They intend to compensate the loss of personnel with better, more modern equipment. If so, French soldiers will probably be relieved by the news: they spend on average 2.500 Euros to complete or replace their official gear, which includes a sleeping bag that doesn’t keep enough heat in cold temperatures, before going on a mission abroad.