French national identity rests on how it is perceived globally so his actions in Libya could save or sink Nicolas Sarkozy. Julian Borger of The Guardian, London Examines
As has often been the case with Nicolas Sarkozy‘s foreign policy, France’s leading role in the Libyan campaign has been bold, dramatic, and sometimes startling, even to Paris’s closest allies.
With events and tactics evolving rapidly, it is too early to say how much this embrace of “humanitarian intervention” represents a new departure for France and its global role, or simply political theatre for Sarkozy’s domestic audience.
“Sarkozy often has a lot of good ideas on a lot of subjects,” said Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, who approves of the Libyan intervention. But he says Sarkozy’s manner, both imperious and impetuous, has left French foreign policy in a mess. “He has an impulsive style, which is not compatible with a true foreign policy which ought to be calm and methodical,” Védrine said.
One consistent theme over the past few weeks, however, is the emphasis Paris has put on collaboration with London.
French and British officials – diplomats and generals alike – worked together closely to pave the way for the air campaign over Libya. In recent days, French officials were at pains to point out that these were the first fruits of a new cross-Channel partnership, set down in a defence co-operation agreement in November – a diplomatic breakthrough after decades of rivalry.
It is a marriage between two similar partners. The bullish stance taken on Libya by Sarkozy and David Cameron owes much to the fact that both were seeking to put a string of foreign policy debacles behind them and project an aura of decisiveness.
National identity is also at stake. Britain is not the only nation in the neighbourhood than has lost an empire but has yet to find a role. The steady erosion of global influence in past decades pains the French even more than their British neighbours. Sarkozy’s popularity rating hit 30% at about the same time as 72% of French people told an opinion poll that France’s image had deteriorated under his watch.
“For the French the international image has always been a key ingredient of our national image, which means the way they are perceived in the world matters for how the French perceive themselves,” said Dominique Moisi, a special adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. “That is the product of a long history, and the idea of the great nation.”
The idea of greatness carries heavy costs. It involves maintaining a fully independent nuclear arsenal, to which France is even more wedded than the UK. The French deterrent, Sarkozy insists, “remains an absolute imperative”.
France also projects formidable “soft” power. It runs 160 embassies and 96 consulates around the world – a diplomatic infrastructure second only to the US. But the country can no longer afford that global reach, and it has been pruning its network, to the disgust of some of the diplomats at the Quai d’Orsay, home of the foreign ministry.
In February a group of 30 active and retired diplomats took the extraordinary step of publishing a anonymous cri de coeur in Le Monde.
“Europe is powerless, Africa escapes us, the Mediterranean will not talk to us, China dominates us and Washington ignores us,” the mutinous group complained under the nom de plume of Marly, saying too close a relationship with Washington had robbed Paris of its distinctive voice.
The sense of France’s identity being defined by its independence from Washington is deeply rooted, dating to Charles de Gaulle’s 1966 withdrawal from Nato’s military structures.
Sarkozy did the opposite. He took France back into Nato’s integrated military command, and presented himself as a modern Frenchman with none of his predecessors’ hang-ups about the American superpower.
Many old hands at the Quai d’Orsay were not impressed. Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, argues that Marly’s complaints are exaggerated, and the perception that Paris’s outlook is less reflexively anti-American has actually helped French diplomacy.
“There are some claims that France’s ‘voice’ is no longer heard because we are not perceived as being ‘independent’. There is no evidence for that,” Tertrais said.
The steady erosion of French influence long predates Sarkozy’s arrival in office, and is arguably driven by global changes far beyond his control.
Apart from scepticism towards American power, France’s postwar, post-imperial self-image has been coloured by two main themes: the pursuit of a strong, integrated Europe as a guarantor of peace; and a benign, wise, big-brotherly presence in former colonies in Africa and the Arab world. Both look increasingly outdated in a globalised and rapidly evolving world.
The “European reflex” has been central to French foreign policy for three decades. But the approach risks being left behind by the rise of new powers such as China, India and Brazil, and the expansion of the EU.
As Moisi puts it: “There is now less Europe in the world and there is less France in Europe.”
Meanwhile, the Arab uprising has revealed France’s much-vaunted intimacy with Africa and the Middle East to be skin deep – a cosy arrangement between elites, rather than a bond between nations.
It emerged that the prime minister, François Fillon, had been a guest of Hosni Mubarak on a family Christmas holiday to Egypt. Meanwhile, the-then French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, had flown for her winter sun in the private jet of a Tunisian tycoon with close links to the ruling Ben Ali family.
Alliot-Marie’s parents were doing a property deal with their host at about the same time she was offering President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali French “savoir faire” in policing Tunisia’s growing unrest.
Alliot-Marie was fired, but Fillon remains, and memories are still fresh in Libya of Gaddafi’s red-carpet treatment in Paris three years ago, when he was permitted to pitch his tent in the Elysée palace grounds.
Little wonder that this year’s revolts in north Africa have led to a haemorrhaging of French influence there. Paris seemed to have more to do with a despotic past than a democratic future.
It therefore required a dramatic act for France to leapfrog its neighbours and at least give the impression of being on the leading edge of history rather than lagging behind it. A dramatic act is what Sarkozy provided.
What is not clear is whether this new muscular multilateralism can be sustained and perhaps become France’s new defining role in the world – or whether history will mark it down as just the latest in a long line of Sarkozy’s trademark “coups”.