Some intellectuals and public commentators are overtly calling France a neoconservative nation. The Economist, for instance, published a stinging article in January, arguing that while Hollande was a “strident neocon” in international affairs, he lacked political decisiveness at home. Has France really become a neoconservative nation?
At first sight, many parallels with the U.S. foreign policy can be drawn. In fact, France has multiplied its foreign operations in recent years. It seems as though France is going through a troubling interventionist moment in which the use of force is employed in a more systematic and knee-jerk manner. Moreover, France maintains a residual presence where it intervenes to oversee “post-conflict stabilization" – a concept eerily reminiscent of the United States’ past excesses in the Middle East.
One can go as far as drawing parallels between Sarkozy and Hollande’s increasingly idealist and moralizing rhetoric, and president Bush’s “Wilsonism in boots.” Oddly enough, democracy promotion and the “war on terror” have become salient themes in the French official discourse. The terrorist threat is also widely felt at home, following the Merah affair last year. Will it be a paltry European remake of the Orwellian measures taken by Bush in the wake of 9/11?
Another theme that could vindicate a comparison between France and Bush’s policies is the tendency to promote “regime change” in foreign countries, as was the case of Laurent Gbagbo’s arrest in the Ivory Coast and Qaddafi’s overthrow in Libya. Recently, president Hollande caused great astonishment by implying that Michel Djotodia, CAR’s new president, would have to leave power when order is re-established. Furthermore, by nudging the U.S. on the path to intervention, and placing itself at the vanguard of the diplomatic effort to launch strikes on Syria, France surely took a very activist and liberal role.
However, arguing that France has become conservative would be erroneous and dangerous. Unlike the U.S in Iraq, Sarkozy and Hollande put a point of honour in respecting international norms and legality when sending troops to a foreign country. Let us recall that in 2003, France refused to bandwagon with the U.S. and Britain to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. For now, the United Nations’ imprimatur has come to sanction every intervention France has launched.
This, of course, is potentially subject to change; Hollande earlier stated he was ready to strike Syria despite the UNSC not approving it. But until such a threat is realized, the label of neoconservatism seems somewhat far-fetched. What’s more, the reasons for intervening have so far never been underpinned by lies and deceit. France only intervened when the urgency of the situation demanded it, to protect its self-interest, and to fulfill its duty of assistance and solidarity.
Moreover, France has always sought limited and pragmatic objectives when it decided to intervene. Unlike the U.S. and its extravagant agenda for the Middle East, France pursued delimited and lucid goals in its various missions. And crucially, Sarkozy and Hollande’s idealist rhetoric is mild in comparison with the virulent, confrontational and simplified “us-against-them” rhetoric the Bush administration used. France’s idealism is mostly the remnant of a tradition of grandeur and international prestige instilled by De Gaulle and Mitterand – much less so than by George W. Bush.
Therefore, arguing that France has become neoconservative is highly misleading and erroneous if we consider the true essence of Bushism and the U.S. foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. France’s foreign policy has certainly taken an activist and liberal turn, surely in response to its declining domestic strength, and protects its exceptional aura in international affairs. But only those who wish to disparage France will use the adjective “neoconservative” to qualify its action. The rest would be wise to bear in mind some of the groundlessness that this imputation entails.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: Le Monde-French Newspaper, French President Francois-Hollande