French president François Hollande has done in Mali what his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did in Libya. In the recent history of noble political gestures, there was also, of course, François Mitterrand’s 1992 trip to besieged Sarajevo.
But that trip, unfortunately, immediately had perverse effects.
Despite the splash it made, it marked the start of a humanitarian approach to a decidedly political problem—namely, the aggression of the nationalist Serb militias against tiny, multiethnic Bosnia.
Which means that the true comparison for France’s current intervention in Mali is Libya, not only the war itself, but also Sarkozy’s visit to Tripoli and Benghazi in October 2011, which had the same flavor of high-risk travel to places that had been liberated but were not yet secure. It involved the same type of speech, one given in the Place de l’Indépendance, the other in the Place de la Liberté; the same jubilant crowd shouting “Thank you, France!” while waving the French flag; and the same enthusiasm from U.S. and European commentators who believed, in both cases, that although the struggle was by no means over (just as Gaddafi holed up in Sirte, the AQIM leaders have fallen back to the caves of the Adrar des Ifoghas massif), the effort itself was worthy of recognition.
I do not intend this comparison to diminish in any way the credit due to Hollande, whose every word in Timbuktu and Bamako was right on target (shame on the narrow-minded souls who, hearing the French president praise the role of the African army during the Second World War and framing the current intervention not as a gift or as a favor but as a debt repaid to the Malian people, could not stop repeating, like broken records, “Françafrique! France à fric!,” a reference (because fric is slang for money) to the self-interested aspects of France’s cultivation of its former African colonies.
Nor do I intend it to pump up Sarkozy, who has no need of me or anyone else to prove that the intervention in Côte d’Ivoire, followed by the tough war in Libya, were right and just and that his foreign policy record is a good one. Consider the poverty of the alternative view that holds that, because democracy cannot be built in a day or in two years and because, in the meantime, the struggle rages between moderate and extremist Islam, between the enlightened and obscurantist proponents of the faith, we should perhaps regret the fall of Gaddafi …
No, I compare Mali to Libya because these two interventions paint a portrait of France that nearly everyone seems to take for granted, whereas, when you think about it, it is pretty surprising. Where and when have we seen a middle-tier power act, let alone twice in so short a time span, as the first military line of defense on the side of law? What other example is there of a mid-size country overtaking its larger partners, rushing past them as if they were timid elephants caught up in their loops of compromise and ending up not betraying them but showing them the way forward and, in so doing, assuming leadership of an international coalition that aims to topple dictatorships?
Thus signifying the end of what, in 1950, was known as Cartierism, a strain of thinking that stressed the unaffordability of colonial, postcolonial, and even humanitarian involvements, as expressed in the phrase, “The Corrèze, not the Zambezi!”
Thus thwarting, on the left and on the right, a tendency that for some years now has been called “sovereigntism,” a mixture of isolationism, exceptionalism, and noninterventionism: “A man’s home is his castle—let others deal with their own problems, their tyrants, their Talibans.”
And thus recognizing the emergence (and this is the essential point) through a metapolitical process that eventually we will better understand (but that has to do with the debate over the duty to intervene, the elevation of human rights to the level of moral and political imperatives, and the birth of a new internationalism) of a new paradigm, the two essential points of which are these:
First, that France is breaking with a tradition tied up with colonialism in which force was used only in the service of strength, that is, to reinforce national interests. For the first time, in Libya and in Mali, force has been used explicitly in the interest of freedom and justice. For the first time since the Battle of Valmy a conscious, deliberate link has been established, and avowed, between the exercise of power and the defense of values greater than those of power.
And, second, that France is taking on not only the moral but also the operational leadership of a just war, sending its best soldiers to stand in for the missing Blue Helmets of the United Nations. It is a strange but undeniable fact that France, with its limited means, its high unemployment, its foreign trade deficit, its habit of coming uncoupled from the train of globalization, is playing the role that one might have expected of the powerful United States. France is setting the geopolitical tone, a function normally preempted by the “official” great powers: the United States, Russia, and China. It is heading up, in other words, another form of globalization, a virtuous, generous variant: the globalization of democracy and peace. It could well become the world’s leading exporter of rights or, if you will, the world’s leading anti-totalitarian power.
The world does not know what to think.
Our larger allies, stunned, are reduced to watching events unfold and expressing support, willingly or grudgingly, for the new direction of international relations. Can an intellectual not known for his chauvinism be forgiven for observing that his country appears to be reconnecting with a form of greatness?
Is this not an occasion for all French citizens—whatever their political allegiance, regardless of their ideological proclivities—to be proud of their country and to say so out loud for all to hear? And, for Americans, it is good to know that the nation has a partner that is not only reliable and fraternal—but also fully capable to take over when isolationism looms.
Translated by Steven Kennedy