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Friday, 28 November 2014

The Cheese-eating warriors


France has emerged as America’s closest European ally in security policy

A DECADE ago, when France led anti-American opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, the country was seen in Washington as pesky and unreliable. President Jacques Chirac had threatened to veto the invasion at the UN Security Council, and France refused to take part in the coalition that subsequently overthrew Saddam
Hussein. In a reflection of the sour political mood, the qualifier “French” was removed from “fries” at cafeterias on Capitol Hill. Ten years on, the turnaround is arresting. For the first time since then, France and America have been carrying out air strikes in Iraq, on Islamic State targets. France was the first ally to join the American-led campaign. This week it sent extra fighter jets to Jordan, to back up those operating from a French base in Abu Dhabi. Besides its readiness to strike Iraq, France has proved hawkish on Syria and Iran, sent troops to thwart a “pre-genocidal” situation in the Central African Republic and is leading the fight against jihadism in the Sahel. “France has emerged as one of America’s most activist and steady European partners on security issues outside Europe,” notes a senior official in the White House.
Part of the explanation lies outside France. Britain is the only other European power with comparable military might, and it joined air strikes on Iraq 11 days after France. But it has become more reticent about foreign entanglements after the misadventure in Iraq and its casualties in Afghanistan. France today mixes a military capacity to project power over long distances with a political system that makes it simple for a president to send troops into battle and an enduring public appetite for such operations. Another reason is a new political consensus in France about the need both to put troops on the line and to work with the Americans. To some observers’ surprise, the arrival of François Hollande, a Socialist, in 2012 led to continuity with his centre-right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than rupture. Mr Hollande’s party has long traded in anti-Americanism. It denounced Mr Sarkozy’s decision in 2009 to rejoin NATO’s military command, a choice that reversed decades-old Gaullist scepticism about the American-led security alliance. Yet it was Hubert Védrine, a former Socialist foreign minister who coined the term “hyperpower” to disparage American unilateralism, who concluded in a report for Mr Hollande two years ago that France should stay in NATO’s military command. Laurent Fabius, the present foreign minister, and John Kerry, his (French-speaking) American counterpart, get on well. “In the security domain, French anti-Americanism has disappeared,” says Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank. This consensus has been forged chiefly by the triumph of hard-headed pragmatism over sentiment and ideology. The best example is counter-terrorism strategy in the African Sahel. For reasons of history, France has ex-colonial ties to a vast swathe of Africa which has today turned into a zone of instability, gun-running and jihadism, with particular concerns around the porous southern Libyan border. France also faces a growing radicalisation of its own citizens, two of whom were identified in a recent Islamic State video about the execution of an American aid worker, Peter Kassig. So France is both keenly aware of the direct terrorist threat and fortuitously placed to try to counter it. Mr Hollande recently launched “Operation Barkhane”, a reorganisation of the 3,000-odd French troops that are stationed in the Sahel. The idea is to give France a more flexible and agile footprint in the region, which will make it easier both to react to terrorist threats and to disrupt terrorist networks there. In this, the French are again working closely with the Americans, who supply them with drones and intelligence as well as operating their own special forces. “There is no precedent in this zone for such intense Franco-American co-operation,” says a French official. Perhaps the greatest puzzle is why this vigorous French approach to foreign and security policy in Africa and the Middle East is matched by excessive discretion in Europe. On almost all pressing recent matters, whether in the euro crisis or over sanctions on Russia, France has been slow to move, inaudible or even downright difficult. It irked both the Americans and its fellow Europeans by insisting for months that it would go ahead with the sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Russia, a concern that has only partly been lifted by Mr Hollande’s decision on November 25th to suspend delivery of the first ship “until further notice”. As for the euro crisis, Mr Hollande was elected on a promise to end austerity and make growth the priority. But a combination of his political weakness (his popularity rating is at a record-breaking low of 13%), France’s economic fragility and its rule-busting public finances has undermined Mr Hollande’s voice in Europe. The Franco-German tie is particularly dysfunctional and strained. Germany’s Angela Merkel remains Europe’s undisputed and sometimes sole leader; almost all European decision-making now hinges on her. For the Americans, this means that Mrs Merkel is still their first European point of contact for political matters. However much they may appreciate French military activism, Mr Hollande does not feature near the top of their to-call list. There are also concerns that economic frailty, and the recent squeeze on its defence budget, may call into question France’s ability to continue to finance its military ambitions. For his part, Mr Hollande may find that the economy and weakness in Europe count more in public opinion than decisiveness farther afield. Foreign wars rarely bring political leaders domestic credit, and the Frenchman’s rising star in Washington has not boosted his standing at home. source:- economist
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