Sarkozy in the Shadow of French Grandeur

Nicolas Sarkozy’s actions in Libya may revive French grandeur but his foreign policy is very different from De Gaulle’s.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Orléans, February 3
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Orléans, February 3 (Elysée)

France’s leadership role in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya gave President Nicolas Sarkozy another chance to shine on the world stage. His aspirations of grandeur may differ from those of his illustrious predecessors however they still irk the Americans.

From the very inception of the Atlantic alliance, France’s aims did not align perfectly with those of the United States. It had attempted, during the formation of NATO, for European colonies to be recognized as national territory — an effort that was readily foiled by the anti-imperialists in Washington.

After the Suez crisis of 1956, where France teamed up with Britain and Israel to revert Egypt’s nationalization of the famed canal, Paris cast a critical eye on the “special relationship” which Britain cultivated with the United States. France had always liked to think of NATO leadership in terms of a triumvirate with Britain, France and the United States leading the free world as equals. The Anglo-Saxon partnership suddenly left the French on the sidelines of transatlantic decisionmaking — an affront to a nation that had only recently accustomed to working with instead of against the British.

France’s independent aspirations were encapsulated in the presidency of Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). The man who had led France in its fight against the Nazis and almost singlehandedly founded the Fifth Republic set out to make France a power to be reckoned with once more. With a combination of state intervention and free-market capitalism, De Gaulle’s administration rebuilt the French economy, revived the nation’s pride and took on a leading role in the process of postwar European integration.

Grandeur became an important ingredient of Gaullist foreign policy in part because it addressed a deep political and psychological need among the French for reassurance in a time of decline,” wrote Sebastian Reyn in “Atlantic Lost” (2007).

It entailed positioning France as a paragon of civilization and a moral force on the basis of its historical, political, and cultural achievements.

France’s desire to amplify its influence beyond its natural station in the world perfectly resonated with the French nation’s self-image of being pertinent to the course of history.

Europe, according to De Gaulle, was to establish itself as a third force in world politics, independent of the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. The president sincerely believed that the international order of the Cold War was a temporary one; that in the 1960s already, East-West divisions were fading.

By leaving NATO, in part, in 1966 and visiting Soviet Russia that very year, De Gaulle wasn’t merely asserting France’s independence from the United States; he was trying to position himself as something of a mediator between the two rivaling power blocs.

The Soviets were less reciprocal than De Gaulle had hoped. Although Moscow appreciated France’s independent status, it had no intention of reducing its role as oppressor in Eastern Europe. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, De Gaulle’s hopes of uniting Europe from “the Atlantic to the Urals” had to be put on hold, if not postponed indefinitely. The realities of the Cold War ultimately undermined his high hopes for global transformation — and allowed the Americans to defeat the general’s challenge to their own supremacy.

After De Gaulle, it was France’s only socialist president, François Mitterrand, whose friendship with German chancellor Helmut Kohl advanced European union. France distanced itself from the Soviets under his leadership and supported the Gulf War.

French relations with the United States deteriorated during Jacques Chirac’s tenure when the president emerged as a leading critic of the Iraq War. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, set out to mend ties with the Americans and in recent months, he built close relations with the newly-elected conservative prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron.

Sarkozy’s notion of grandeur rather differs from De Gaulle’s or Mitterrand’s however, writes Charles Homans in Foreign Policy. Whereas those former presidents had long-term visions of France’s place in the world, Sarkozy is driven by polls and momentary popularity. “Risk quickens his pulse and whets his appetite.”

The French president had many reasons to take the lead in the Libyan intervention. Besides his concern for the people of Libya, he hoped to draw a veil over earlier disarray in his government’s response to the revolts in the Arab world.

When demonstrators in Tunis faced the armed forces of another dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie proposed sending French riot police to Tunisia to help train their Tunisian counterparts in crowd control techniques.

Alliot-Marie resigned but Sarkozy and his party remain unpopular while elections loom. The military effort in Libya might give the president the international prestige he seeks even as there was no discernible surge of support for him since French fighter jets first took off for Libya.

In the end, Homans warns that “Gaullist grandeur may prove elusive if the fighting in the desert fails to go as planned.”

Despite Anglo-French enthusiasm for an intervention, they could not pull it off without American ships and bombers first disabling Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses. European fighter jets may be able to enforce the no-fly zone but if the veteran Libyan leader perseveres and the rebels don’t manage to oust him soon, France could not successfully turn the tide in the civil war without support from the United States.

France has a large immigrant population moreover, much of it drawn from North Africa. The effort to prevent a massacre in Benghazi had popular appeal but escalation may lead to protests. “Bitter memories of French imperialism can easily flare into open opposition if the military adventure takes a wrong turn.”