A little over ten years ago, as the U.S. government was making its case to the United Nations as to why Saddam Hussein was posing a grave threat to international peace and security, France was adamantly against any intervention in Iraq. At the time, President Jacques Chirac became somewhat of an icon – in France, and further afield – for standing up to the Bush administration’s desire to go to war. It was hard – perhaps impossible – to predict then that, a mere ten years later, a different French president would not only support U.S. military policy in Iraq, but also offer to directly participate in the military efforts.
French President Francois Hollande, unlike Jacques Chirac, does not have much popular support at home – in fact, he is the least popular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, with only 13% of respondents having a positive opinion of him. At home, the Hollande presidency has been defined by scandal and perceived ineptitude. (His ex-partner, Valerie Trierweiler, published a tell-all book this week, where all the intimate, embarrassing details of their recent break up were exposed.) But, despite Hollande’s great difficulties at home, his proactive foreign and defense policies are putting France at the forefront of many of today’s global security challenges. In the last two years, France responded to challenges to peace and security in two African nations, reacting swiftly by deploying significant military operations in both Mali and the Central African Republic – under the aegis of a UN Security Council mandate in both countries. Today, it’s positioning itself as a key ally of the international coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Francois Hollande was in Iraq today, in what is reported as the highest profile visit to Iraq since ISIL overran Iraqi forces in June, pledging his support to the fight against radical extremists in Iraq and Syria, including air strikes “if necessary”. France was also one of the first countries to announce it would help arm Kurds in northern Iraq last month, and is hosting an international conference on Iraq on Monday in Paris. In all of these cases – Mali, CAR, Iraq – France has taken on a leadership role when the European Union failed to come to a consensus, and other major European countries, such as Germany, are adopting a more conservative and limited approach.
France has historically perceived itself as a player of global significance, a major power and defender of human rights, and a force to be reckoned with militarily and politically. This strong, underlying current in French opinion has buoyed the ability of successive governments to define French global actions – military, diplomatic, humanitarian – within a large spectrum. Whether it be Chirac’s refusal to participate in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hollande’s proactive participation in this new effort to defeat ISIL, all of these actions can be ascribed to France’s desire to be at the leading edge of the fight to protect global peace and stability.
Domestically, given his disastrous approval ratings and the enormous economic and social challenges currently facing France, Hollande’s foreign policy is hardly registering as a major policy issue, giving his government even more leeway to be proactive. As the fight against ISIL begins in earnest, will France maintain a leadership role in the international effort?