Few world leaders in recent years have been subject to the level of derision faced by President François Hollande of France. Even before a Paris tabloid exposed his late-night dalliances with actress Julie Gayet—sending Hollande’s then-companion and France’s now former first lady Valérie Trierweiler to hospitalization for severe depression, and making the improbable Lothario the primary target of comedians on both sides of the Atlantic—Hollande was the most unpopular president in the history of France. Since then, things have gotten worse.
An inelegant man who never served as government minister, a leader lacking the physical presence and political stature of his predecessors, Hollande is an accidental president who came to power as the most palatable replacement for the man who was to be the Socialist Party’s standard bearer in 2012: the brilliant former finance minister and IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Strauss-Kahn abruptly quit politics after being arrested, though the charges were later dismissed, in connection with the rape of a chambermaid at the Sofitel hotel in New York in May 2011. Hollande, in fact, campaigned as an Everyman, a candidate with middle-class tastes (he prided himself on not even owning a car) who would be a “normal president”—the antithesis of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose term as president was partly overshadowed by the drama of his own personal life and numerous friendships with the ultra-wealthy.
But Hollande’s governance, which was supposed to be workmanlike and efficient, has been anything but. Unemployment rose by 5.2 percent* the first year he was in office, to 10.3 percent, exacerbated in part by the seventy-five percent rate he levied on those earning more than one million euros a year, which encouraged France’s one percent and their capital to leave in droves for London and Geneva, and discouraged both domestic and foreign direct investment.
Yet one of the ironies of Hollande’s reign is that despite his comical personal life and anemic economic policy, the most unpopular French president in recent history has emerged as an increasingly visible and influential figure on the international stage.
With a US administration increasingly turned inward and incapable of responding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, not to mention his massive human rights violations, Hollande took the lead among international leaders in pleading for air strikes to help overthrow the regime. He intervened in both Mali and the Central African Republic, and has taken a far tougher stand against Tehran’s nuclear program than Washington. Under Hollande, France has, surprisingly, begun to fill a part of the void created by timorous American leadership, although it has also maintained a close relationship with the Obama administration.
As Robert Kagan argued a decade ago in Of Paradise and Power, Europe’s once great powers have for years, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall, shifted their focus from the realm of war and power politics to the more local task of building the Europe Union. Yet although France has been one of the founding and driving forces behind the new European order, Paris’s approach to the unified continent has been equivocal. While yielding aspects of national sovereignty to the EU, France has guarded key political prerogatives that allow for an energetic foreign and defense policy.
France’s political culture explains some of this reluctance. Highly centralized as it is, the country’s governing system favors the executive branch, which directs the legislature. This system lends more easily to decisive action when the executive is willing. In the realm of foreign affairs, French presidents can also count on a remarkably disciplined corps of civil servants steeped in their nation’s strong military and diplomatic traditions. This overall arrangement gives French diplomacy a remarkable consistency. Whereas US foreign and defense policy can dramatically change in a short period of time, as the last decade has shown, the French regime is set up to encourage its diplomacy to be far less susceptible to public opinion.
Moreover, the French system propagates and encourages a rather unified understanding of world affairs in French society. Unlike in the United States, French opinion leaders, journalists, and policy organizations do not have much influence on foreign policy: their role is circumscribed by the expertise of diplomats, viewed as operating in the realm of state interest (raison d’état), which is of necessity detached from everyday morality and necessitating secrecy. This executive-centered regime, hierarchical and more secretive than the American system, allows both bold moves as well as cynical ones: recent history brings to mind the 1985 Rainbow Warrior incident, in which French intelligence agents bombed a Greenpeace vessel docked in Auckland, New Zealand, that was destined to stop a French nuclear test in the South Pacific, killing one environmentalist.1
Even partisans of secrecy and an energetic foreign policy admit that the French system has significant drawbacks: as a consequence of the lack of separation of power and public deliberation, it takes time for France to change a mistaken strategic course. These factors notwithstanding, France has initiated a new foreign policy direction in recent years, the result of two major events. One was the 2009 eurozone crisis, which fueled intense doubt about the future of Europe, thereby opening up new possibilities for France. The other was Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as president in 2007, which reinvigorated the transatlantic relationship.
The euro crisis, as has often been noted, is not simply an economic one, but an existential one as well. Before it struck, France’s elites, especially its near-homogenous senior civil servants, were pro-European and guided by a near-dogmatic optimism with respect to the wide-ranging benefits to be gained from European integration. Now, these same elites who once dismissed Euroskeptics as “Flat-Earthers” painfully and humbly acknowledge that the EU has achieved peace but not prosperity. Such skepticism has challenged the legitimacy of Brussels across the continent and bolstered calls for a return of the nation-state—in short, for sovereignty. In a national referendum in 2005, France rejected the so-called “European constitution” with a majority “non” of fifty-five percent (and this before the economic crisis). The EU’s ongoing inability to ameliorate the eurozone crisis has caused an even further decline in support. According to a Pew poll, the EU’s approval rating in France fell from sixty-five percent to forty-five percent between 2012 and 2013. For France’s foreign policy establishment, the crisis became an opportunity to loosen the constraints of EU cohabitation with Germany.
During these same years, Sarkozy also did much groundwork to reinvigorate French foreign policy. After his election, he rapidly gained respect on the international stage by audaciously declaring himself an “Atlanticist” (a charged term in French politics, used to vilify someone as subservient to American interests), patching up US relations damaged by the Iraq War, and adopting a more favorable posture toward Israel. He made diplomatic waves in July 2008, when he persuaded Vladimir Putin to halt his attack on Georgia as Russian tanks were poised to strike the outskirts of Tbilisi. In 2009, the Gaullist Sarkozy reversed the once-sacrosanct Gaullist doctrine of military independence as France rejoined NATO’s integrated military command structure. He also took a firm position against the Iranian regime in direct opposition to the Obama administration, pushing the US Congress in 2010 to adopt tougher sanctions on Tehran than the White House desired. Late in that same year, the “Arab Spring” began to destabilize North Africa and West Africa, regions traditionally viewed as France’s non-European near abroad, and Sarkozy did not hesitate to fill the void left by a hesitant American president. By 2011, Sarkozy took the lead in the fight to oust Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, partnering with British Prime Minister David Cameron and convincing a reluctant President Obama to lead from behind. Sarkozy lost reelection in the spring of the following year, but Hollande, no doubt aware of his predecessor’s popularity as a likely challenger in 2017, has readily built upon the foreign policies he established.
Although the Snowden revelations did less harm in France than in any other Western European country, due in part to the French public’s understanding of raison d’état, the French-American alliance remains a sensitive one. In a country where anti-America resentment can easily resurface, the French president needs to maintain some ambiguity in his posture toward the US. Hollande has accordingly called his stance one of “friend, ally, non-aligned.” Yet he also knows that the transatlantic alliance offers the most reliable anchor for a robust French foreign policy. Reinforcing Sarkozy’s Atlanticist shift, economic pressures and doctrinal evolution have drawn Paris closer to Washington on this fundamental point. With a costly welfare state and public deficit reaching three percent of GDP, France simply cannot afford an entirely independent military strategy. Defense Ministry white papers from 2008 and 2013 show a shift of France’s fighting forces from a Cold War military heavy on personnel to a more agile one grounded in intelligence and special operations and streamlined for asymmetric conflicts. The airstrikes in Libya proved the necessity of the American defense umbrella under this new strategy: eighty percent of the logistical effort (ammunition, intelligence, etc.) came from the US.
Yet other major policy decisions in recent years showcase France’s independence in pursuing a more muscular international policy. American commentators have been surprised by France’s relatively tough line on Tehran—with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius almost derailing the original preliminary agreement sought by the United States in early November 2013 as a “sucker’s deal.” However, except perhaps for the undiplomatic reference to the US position, this relatively tougher line was generally consistent with past French policy. With the exception of the Jacques Chirac presidency, Paris has taken a hard line toward Iran since the Khomeini revolution of 1979. France openly supported Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq conflict, selling Mirage jets to Saddam Hussein and even lending the Baathist regime fighter planes to strike Iran’s petroleum infrastructure. To force France to end its support of Iraq, Iran undertook a high-profile campaign of terror against French targets in Lebanon and even against France itself. In 1985–86, nine French journalists and diplomats were taken hostage in Beirut by pro-Iranian forces; a series of terror attacks at prominent locations in Paris killed thirteen people. In response, France cut off diplomatic relations with Iran until the end of the war in 1988.
In 2007, in analyzing the Iranian threat, Nicolas Sarkozy argued that the world faced two untenable alternatives, either “the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.” A year later, Sarkozy declared, “It is impossible to shake hands with [President Ahmadinejad], who dared state that Israel should be wiped off the map.” Sarkozy and his close advisers, in fact, spoke scornfully of the Obama administration’s efforts to extend an outstretched arm to the Iranian president. In 2011, France recalled its ambassador to Iran in protest against an attack on the British Embassy. France has also uniformly supported tough sanctions against the Iranian regime, voting in favor of all six UN resolutions.
Foreign Minister Fabius’s move last November in Geneva could be largely understood as a continuation of this policy, as well as a frustrated reaction to months of direct negotiations between Iran and the US held without French knowledge. Because of French criticism, the final interim agreement, though massively flawed in the eyes of leading French diplomats, was significantly stronger than the original sought by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The heart of French objections to the original deal was the fate of the small heavy water reactor at Arak, which, when completed, could produce enough enriched plutonium as a by-product for a bomb; in the preliminary agreement signed in Geneva on November 24, 2013, with the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), the Iranians agreed to halt further progress on the reactor.
If its public rhetoric and foreign policies vis-à-vis Iran offer insight into the hard-nosed side of French diplomacy, the country’s military interventions in Africa offer insight into its willingness to exert its hard power. Hollande’s decisions to intervene militarily in Mali and in the Central African Republic follow France’s longstanding grand strategy, and reflect the role France plays in helping maintain order, especially in some of the more volatile parts of Africa.
Currently, the US Africa Command, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, has only five thousand troops—less than half the forces France has on the continent.2 The French military takes special pride in its familiarity with African terrain, nations, cultures, and traditions, and when necessary, France can rapidly dispatch troops to the continent. Françafrique — France’s unique mix of military, economic, cultural, and political cooperation with her former colonies and sometimes unsavory governments, criticized widely by intellectuals and activists opposed to “neo-colonialism”—has faded a bit in the five decades since decolonization but never disappeared. French economic, political, and humanitarian concerns, especially regarding the roughly two hundred thousand French citizens currently residing in Africa, are significant. Although Hollande criticized Françafrique during his presidential campaign, he has remained loyal to its tenets, in part because the increase in violence in Africa left him no choice.
In Mali, for instance, the situation had been deteriorating rapidly since early 2012. Armed with weapons from Libya, two thousand jihadists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujwa, a rival jihadist group, formed an alliance with the Salafist group Ansar Dine, and sought to build a safe haven in Azawad, the desert in the north of Mali. From May 2012 to January 2013, different intervention options were considered to prevent the creation of an independent state of Azawad. At first, Hollande wanted African militaries to handle the initiative, with the backing of French aerial support. In December 2012, UN Security Council Resolution 2085 authorized an international force under African command to be formed and deployed to Mali. But in January, the jihadists began an offensive that threatened Bamako, the capital, and Hollande soon after ordered the French army to intervene on January 11th. Led by special forces, a French marine brigade of six hundred men advanced five hundred miles in five days to reach Timbuktu, the main city in the Azawad, which was under jihadist control, while two hundred and fifty French Foreign Legion paratroopers built a bridgehead.
All told, between January and March, four thousand French soldiers were deployed to Mali. (US support for the French mission, given in the form of aerial refueling and planes to transport allied soldiers from other African nations, notably Chad and Togo, was critical to the mission.) By the beginning of March, the leader of AQIM, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was killed in a bombing and, by the end of the month, thirty-three hundred troops from France and neighboring Chad tracked down the jihadists in their sanctuary, the Adrar des Ifoghas, the northeast mountainous region of Mali immediately south of Algeria. In intense fighting, one hundred and thirty jihadists were killed—as well as thirty-eight soldiers from Chad and six from France. A jihadist insurgency that months earlier looked as if it would come to control much of Mali was badly beaten and dispersed. Sixty-two hundred UN soldiers were deployed to the country in April. A cease-fire agreement was signed in June, and new presidential elections were held in July.
Despite such success, however, Hollande’s policy in Francophone Africa has not always been forward-leaning. In March 2013, as the crisis in Mali simmered, he initially refused a request by President François Bozizé of the Central African Republic (CAR) for help against the Muslim Seleka militia coalition. Hollande’s hesitation proved costly: Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader, drove Bozizé from power. In the following weeks, Seleka militias attacked churches and Christian communities; refugees began fleeing the country as chaos spread under the threat of genocide. In early December, UN Security Council Resolution 2127 authorized an African-led mission in the country, with French support. French military specialists had already been on the ground for a month, preparing for the arrival of troops deployed the very day the UN authorized action. Later that month, the US began to provide support to transport allied troops from Burundi to take part in the French-led effort.
Hollande has essentially risked being accused of neo-colonialism for the sake of preventing another mass slaughter in central Africa, although the results have been mixed. In just forty-eight hours of rapid action, on December 7–8, 2013, twelve hundred French marines secured the capital, Bangui. Their mission was to disarm the Seleka and allow passage of humanitarian assistance, with the help of forty-four hundred African soldiers. Yet the challenge on the ground in CAR is far greater than in Mali, despite France’s formidable capability. The situation has worsened since January, as the Anti-Balaka Christian militias, seeking revenge, have profited from the departure of the Seleka militias. In February, Hollande ordered four hundred more soldiers to the country. In the midst of the turmoil, France has been forced into the role of peacekeeper, disarming both Muslim and Christian militias. Successes have been limited.
Beyond France’s diplomatic effort to prevent proliferation in Iran and the military effort to bring stability to Mali and the Central African Republic, however, the Syrian crisis best exemplifies France’s ambitions and limitations to exert its influence and power internationally. When undeniable evidence emerged in August 2013 that Assad had launched chemical attacks in Damascus, the leaders of France, Britain, and the United States advocated punitive air strikes against Assad’s regime.
Even after Parliament refused to support Prime Minister Cameron’s call to intervene on August 29th—a historic setback for a British leader—high-ranking French defense officials were convinced that President Hollande would order a strike on the Assad regime as soon as August 31st. His government readied Rafale fighter jets and drafted press releases announcing the attack. To bolster popular support for the pending intervention, the French Foreign Ministry leaked an intelligence report detailing the chemical attacks.
Yet Hollande’s plans to strike limited targets in Syria came undone just twenty-four hours before the attack was to commence, when an indecisive Obama chose to seek congressional support—a move that killed the initiative, given, in part, the president’s lackluster effort to press for Congress’s approval. By failing to keep his word to respond militarily to Assad’s proven use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama isolated and somewhat humiliated Hollande. As the Putin and Obama governments drew up a hasty (and thus far problematic) agreement that called for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, the French president tried to put the best spin on his lonely stand: “Our threat to strike convinced the Russians and the Syrian regime to agree to surrender their chemical weapons. So it was a success for us. It was not as has been reported a victory for the Syrian regime.”
In the face of a complex geostrategic environment, Hollande has aptly managed to maintain France’s balancing act, having become Obama’s favorite European interlocutor, despite the occasional rift.
Indeed, the warmth between the two presidents was evident in their press conference during Hollande’s February visit to Washington.
Obama has apparently grown to appreciate France’s swift and competent military successes in Mali and efforts in the Central African Republic. And now, given the apparent failure of Obama’s cooperation with Russia to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpile, the American president may need French cover if he manages to somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and redeem his disastrous Syria policy. Today, France is one of the very few countries in the West with big international ambitions and some measure of capability to achieve them. Economic circumstances, both on the European and the national level, have limited France’s capacity to project power, but Hollande, like his predecessors, has made the most of it under difficult circumstances.
Hollande has none of the baggage of Prime Minister Cameron’s coalition government or German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s politics of austerity or strict limitations on the use of military force. Moreover, he doesn’t lecture the US about its National Security Agency. Much as Obama needs Hollande, with municipal and European elections on the horizon, the highly unpopular Hollande needs Obama even more.