Libya: French Soft Power in Retrospect

France’s leadership role in Libya was an example of its ability to “frame and shame.”

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

If a state possesses sufficient “soft power,” it has acquired the ability to frame and shame events and actors in international relations. The ability to frame enables the protagonist to package a debate in terms that are conducive to its own interests. The power to shame refers to the possibility of trapping other countries rhetorically and changing their behaviour.

The French role in last year’s intervention in Libya was a perfect example.

President Nicholas Sarkozy was the driving force behind military action. After blundering his way through Tunisia’s revolution and with his popularity at home eroding, the French leader found the opportunity to redeem himself in the deserts of North Africa and framed the debate accordingly. The civilized world, he said, he could not stand by while a madman dictator butchered thousands of his own people who were merely yearning to be free.

Curiously, the same valiant defender of freedom had evicted several thousand Roma from France in 2009. In 2005, when riots erupted across the economically depressed suburbs of Paris, the same Nicolas Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, dismissed the conflagration as carried out by scum and riffraff. The vast majority of them were youth of Arab descent.

A similar venting of outrage against the excesses of the Libyan state apparatus got people classified as “freedom fighters” instead, deserving of air support from the international community.

In contrasting the two — the 2005 Paris riots which were classified as hooliganism and the 2011 Libyan uprising which was characterized as a democratic revolt against an eccentric strongman — the power of framing becomes evident and so does the application of soft power.

French soft power is unique. While its republican traditions and NATO membership place it firmly in the Western sphere, its socialism and freethinking (or “Gallic obstructionism” as Anglo-Saxon countries condescendingly refer to it) endear it to the “East” especially among the nonaligned countries.

Gallic obstructionism had its heyday in 2003 when then President Jacques Chirac took the lead among nations that opposed the American-British invasion of Iraq, leapfrogging ahead of both China and Russia in being the first to confirm the use of a Security Council veto.

The framing of the veto explanation itself was masterful. Not only was it described as a principled stance against unilateral warmongering and support for the rule of law; it was also sold as an act of altruism, aimed at relieving the intense pressure that was being brought to bear on the arguably weaker nonaligned and nonpermanent members of the Security Council by enabling them to remain precisely that — “nonaligned.”

After Sarkozy’s election in 2007, France promised to put an end to its obstructionism. Within months of his ascendance to the presidency, Paris promised to rejoin NATO’s unified command structure which it had abandoned in the 1960s. It partially reversed its pro-Palestinian policies and took a hardline against Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In early 2011, French soft power was therefore at an all time high, respected both in the “East” and certainly viewed with considerably less suspicion in the “West.”

The use of soft power in Libya served to set to rhetorical traps. The first — shaming — was directed at the West which had since the Bush Administration championed “freedom” around the world. After all, if France, which had previously had been so willing to align itself with Middle Eastern despots, was calling for Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, freedom loving America could not ignore the call.

The second trap — framing — was served up to the East. If “Arabist” France, which otherwise so respected the status quo, was urging regime change in Libya, the nonaligned nations could not stay behind.

As a result of French diplomacy, the West could not ignore the situation in Libya, the East could not oppose intervention and the die was cast.

It is too early to predict what happens in Libya next but one thing is clear: the tangible application of soft power is about as hard, cold and calculating as it gets.