The multinational coalition currently pounding ISIS is raising controversy worldwide, not least so in France. French president Francois Hollande has played a lead role in pushing for military intervention in Iraq. Since August France has been supplying arms to the Iraqi Kurds and in September it became the first country to join the US in air strikes on ISIS, with several other countries joining the bombing campaign in November.
Since Hollande’s announcement of French participation in the air strikes on ISIS, political analysts and columnists worldwide declared a new era of French foreign policy, with Americans particularly praising the ‘return’ of France as a reliable partner in the war against terror. Suddenly Hollande became the unlikely new hawk thanks to whom, in the view of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, “the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of France… have become the world’s meat-chomping enforcement tigers. As for the United States, it has, in the French view, gone a touch camembert-soft”.
While such simplistic interpretations of the situation are hardly useful, they illustrate the fact that France was, till now, considered an unreliable American ally, reticent to share the burden of American-led wars. These assumptions are based on the fact that France has traditionally portrayed itself (albeit with questionable success) as the ally of Arab states against American and British interventionism. Since the days of General De Gaulle, France has tried to gain the favour of oil-producing countries, often in blatant disregard of American interests. As early as the 70s it courted states that were openly anti-American, such as Libya – classified by the US as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ after Gaddafi nationalised Libyan oil – and Iraq, which cut ties with the US in 1967. France became Iraq’s second commercial partner after the Soviet Union, notably by selling it a nuclear reactor (allegedly for ‘scientific experimentation’). During the Iran-Iraq war of the 80s, France provided Iraq with arms and warplanes, which the country ultimately never paid for (Iraq’s ‘odious debt’ was annulled in 2004).
France was also an unreliable partner in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: its relations with America’s protégé, Israel, have been wobbly at best. Israeli-French relations are strong on the economic level but French leaders have often angered Tel Aviv by their diplomatic stance, accusing it of illegal occupation, repeatedly calling for a freeze to settlements and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. While French presidents refused to visit Israel until 1982, the PLO was allowed to open an office in Paris as early as 1975.
Of course, the most blatant act of French rebellion against US hegemony in the region was in 2003, when President Chirac opposed the war on Iraq, threatening to veto the operation if it went to the UN Security Council. Siding with China’s Hu Jintao and Russia’s Putin, Chirac did little to hide his dislike of G. W. Bush and allowed relations with the US to reach an all-time low. At home however, he gained widespread popularity for championing a ‘multipolar world’ where richer states could not bully poorer states into dubiously justified wars.
Ten years later, as French and American planes bomb Iraq together, the irony of the situation is probably not lost on Mr Chirac. But does Hollande’s interventionism in Iraq represent a radical change in French foreign policy?
In contrast to what recent reports assume, France has always been among the most interventionist powers in the world, particularly in its former colonies. In Africa, France has been actively supporting governments that serve its interests and toppling those that don’t. With a strong presence of French military bases and personnel in the continent, it also never shied away from sending troops on the ground (covertly or not), to aid ally regimes and rebel groups, tip the balance in civil conflicts, suppress protests and prevent coups. France also brought down governments as it saw fit: Central African Republic’s Bokassa was toppled by a French-organised coup in 1979, after France reversed its alliance with his regime. Between 1961 and the turn of the century, France intervened militarily over 25 times in Africa, mostly on its own.
Elsewhere in the world France could not intervene so freely due to US hegemony in those areas, or simply because there were less economic interests at stake. However French troops were deployed to Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1998-99, and in Lebanon in the 80s and 90s. France had troops in Afghanistan for over a decade, before Sarkozy announced their pulling out in 2012, just after deploying troops to the Ivory Coast and Libya in 2011.
So why do recent reports assume that Hollande’s intervention in Iraq is a complete turnover of French foreign policy? There is nothing new about French military interventionism. France has rarely hesitated before sending its troops abroad if a clear economic or strategic gain is to be made. Let’s not be naïve: military interventions, unlike what governments like to tell us, are mostly motivated by money. The safety of civilians, humanitarian tragedies or the need to eliminate terrorist threats are simply catch-phrases to convince the public of the necessity wars whose main aim is to secure economic and strategic interests. France’s economy profits from wars, particularly when the warring parties are buying its guns: France is the world’s fourth exporter of arms and a major trader in jets and military vehicles. Last year French military exports rose 43%, the second best year in a decade. With the current conflict in Syria and Iraq, 2014 looks even more promising for France.
France’s participation at the fore of the air strikes in Iraq does not mark a new era of French foreign policy. The only significant shift that has occurred – and this can be traced back to the late 90s – has been that French leaders have preferred multinational interventions over getting involved in foreign wars alone. France’s re-entry in NATO’s military command in 2008 and its pushing for several multilateral NATO missions since, show that France is still willing to use its guns, but with a little help from its friends.
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