Reclaiming the French Art of Statecraft

France has now been engaged in Mali for two weeks. The intervention seems to be typical of the “French touch” by combining a degree of initial improvisation, the right amount of aggressiveness and a difficult- but so far successful- integration with the lesser advanced African forces (something Huber called ‘compound warfare’). And for all those in doubt, yesterday’s operation on the Timbuktu airport involving an airborne assault, air and ground support, and an armoured column, shows that the French tactical and operational art is alive and well. I recommend to all those interested to read this story on the air war, and for the French-speaking readers these excellent analysis here and here.

Many commentators have already discussed the Sahel’s importance in the fight against Islamist extremism, the medium-term challenges of transferring the bulk of the stabilization effort to African troops, and the long-term challenge of creating a stable Malian state mitigating the ethnical tensions and improving the inhabitant’s conditions of living. No doubt these challenges will prove much more difficult than the current operation, but nobody said that a military intervention would solve the area’s ethnic and social problems: it can only be part of a long-term process.

Equally interesting is to look at the French diplomatic and strategic concerns and to put them in some perspective. France has a long tradition of articulating military power and diplomacy that dates back at least to Richelieu, and it is worth looking at the way these two elements interact in the recent French interventions.  Obviously, the usual crowd of scholars and journalists were quick to dub the operations in Mali as “neo-colonialist.” This vague intellectual category is regularly used by lazy commentators to describe power relations in world politics. A quick look at the evidence (United Nations resolution, calls for assistance by the Malian government, broad regional support even including the yet incredibly short-sighted Algeria) suffices to discard this accusation.

What is more telling is the parallelism between President Hollande’s decision to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014 (a move effective at the end of 2012) and the decision to intervene in Mali. In both cases, France warned her partners in advance (pulling out of Afghanistan was part of Hollande’s electoral programme), but was firm in defending French interests. In the case of Afghanistan, Hollande acknowledged mission creep and assessed that the mission to deny Al-Quaeda a safe haven was over. This obviously undermined NATO’s rhetoric of “in together, out together” but Hollande may have just made the first move as several countries, including the UK and the US, are now considering an earlier (if not total) withdraw. The same is true in Mali when, after months of appearing undecided about an intervention, France quickly moved to stop the columns of jihadists that were aiming towards the South. This resolve is also illustrated by the (unsuccessful) operation launched in order to free a French secret agent in Somalia two weeks ago. This combination of consideration towards the partners and resolve arguably makes France a more respected partner in the transatlantic community than the caricature of a country allegedly unable to get over its Gaullist mythology would suggest. This is probably why the decision about Afghanistan did not spark the anticipated corrosive debates.

Moreover, this resolve leaves France and the United Kingdom almost alone in Europe when it comes to the application of military power. The UK and Denmark, the two nations opposed to the development of a Common Security and Defence Policy by the European Union, have been the first two countries to logistically support the French effort, quickly joined by minimal American support. Since then, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Spain furnished limited logistical support. This is on the verge of being ridiculous: the European psychodrama about the intervention is even mocked by the German newspapers (English version here). France and the UK are now the only remaining forces able to cover the entire spectrum of military activities in Europe, and the last willing to use force: the assessment is fifteen years old already, and each military intervention is a painful reminder that nothing has changed. In the short term, this is good news for France, and confirms its status of responsible nation, but the medium- to long-term perspectives for Europe are obviously much grimmer. What must be noted is the little rhetorical emphasis Paris put on the European Union’s role in this affair: this would have been unthinkable in 2005-2006 when any French initiative had to be disguised under an EU framework. The European rift about the intervention in Libya has left some deep scars…

Ultimately, little is new about France’s resolve in defending her interests (some scholars have already mentioned that France is the ultimate “realist” state). What is more interesting to observe is the tamed rhetoric of the last five years, so far from the inflammatory speeches by Dominique de Villepin at the United Nations when he was confronting the United States about Iraq in 2002-2003. Like she was for Iraq, France is probably right about Afghanistan and Mali, but trading strong rhetoric for dialogue with partners makes the difference between being a pariah and a credible state.