Sunday, April 3, 2011

Those Wacky French

French President Sarkozy is getting heaps of flak for pushing the US, NATO and the rest into a  war without clear goals.  Lots of folks are drawing parallels between his low popularity and the mission to Clinton and Kosovo and Wag the Dog.  The blame is now falling on his ties to, dare I say it, French intellectuals.  Of course, with Bernard-Henri Lévy appearing all over the place and taking heaps of credit, this is not entirely surprising.  Still, most French folks support the mission:
Yet for all that, few who are familiar with the French president—whether friend or foe—question Sarkozy's concern for the Libyan people. "Even among the Socialists, everybody recognized that he did what should be done," says a leading party operative on the left, ordinarily no fan of Sarkozy's. But outside the bars and lounges of the five-star hotels in Paris, the French on the street are not so kind. Even though two thirds of the public approve of what Sarkozy has done in Libya, his personal numbers remain abysmal. "The French people do not like him," says a veteran of the presidential press corps. "They just do not like him."
As George HW Bush found out, even a very successful war has only a fleeting impact on the polls.  I do not know the man all that well, but it seems to me that there are several components that together make some sense of this:
  • The North African revolutions increased the threat of more Muslim immigrants coming to France at a time where such folks are increasingly unpopular.  One way to handle such flows is to end the conflict  a la German recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in in 1991-92.
  • Asserting French leadership and trying to marginalize NATO are much more traditional French positions to take than Sarkozy's embrace of NATO in 2007.  Competing against an extreme right wing party, it makes sense that how Sarkozy pursues this effort would fit better France's Gaullist foreign policy patterns.
  • Any chance to alienate Turkey?  Sarkozy seems to grab it.
The funny thing is that  it is not so much the decision to intervene that seems to be so troublesome for observers but how.  That is, France is not alone in opposing Qaddafi.  Yes, it pushed, but others went along for their own reasons, including pretty widely shared views about responsibility to protect, immigration prevention, anti-repression promotion (not quite the same thing as democracy promotion, but in the same ballpark), regional concerns (impact on Egypt and Tunisia), the nuisance that Qadaffi had always been, and so forth.  But the French moves to go first, to try to keep NATO out of it (US insisted NATO or go alone), and doing their best to alienate the Turks made their effort to stand out so very successful.

This is the France I remember--making sure that all noticed its great power-ness even though it has not been one for quite some time and now cannot even afford to budget its defense without British coordination.  Remember, it was Mitterand who flew into Sarajevo in a grand gesture to open up the airport in 1992.  So, Sarkozy is hardly the outlier that he appears to be ... at least among French Presidents.

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