It seems like the French are as fond as ever of a good ol’ national myth. The latest gem out of Paris goes something like this: French-led actions in Libya are pioneering a new doctrine of humanitarian warfare. Seeing the atrocities perpetuated by the Kaddafi regime, France has stepped forward to defend freedom and human dignity. The tricolore once again serves as the world’s moral compass.
It’s a nice thought. Yet, the brashness and determination of French authorities belies a deeper rationale for recent decisions. The French didn’t just want action in Libya; they wanted to lead it. These days, a mild desperation haunts the Fifth Republic. Mired in cultural conflicts at home and sensing that international influence is fading fast, the French political establishment is becoming increasingly anxious to prove that it is still a first tier global actor. When the crisis broke in Libya, excessive thumb twiddling by the rest of the world provided the opportunity to do just that.
Due credit – or blame – must be given to the Desperate Nation’s most desperate man, President Sarkozy. At a dismal 31 percent, Sarko’s approval ratings are now the lowest of any president in modern French history, thanks in part to heavily criticized inaction in Tunisia and Egypt. With the 2012 presidential election fast approaching, Monsieur President is feeling the heat. The tension is clearly on display: Sarkozy authorized the first assaults on Libyan targets without consulting his allies – or even his usual advisers. It looks like he’ll snatch at anything to rebuild his reputation.
All this French ambition may not be a bad thing. As long as Sarkozy and co. are willing to play the role of international policeman, the US and its allies can take a back seat. What matters most is that humanitarian principles are being upheld, not why. That means overlooking the periodic arms deals and nuclear power agreements between Paris and Tripoli – for the time being at least.