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The Paradox of France's Humanitarian Interventions
DAVID A. BELL is a professor of history at Princeton University. His most recent book is The First Total War.See more by this author
For years, France’s penchant for surrender has been a running joke in the United States. It’s always been a caricature, but these days the joke makes less sense than ever. In 2011, France took a leading role in the campaign to oust Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. Last year, it intervened to support the government of Mali against Islamist rebels. And now France has troops on the ground in the Central African Republic, as part of an international force trying to end the catastrophic ethnic conflict there. For Americans, this may seem like a strange turn of events. Has France suddenly rediscovered its Napoleonic military vigor? Is it aiming to surpass a newly gun-shy United States as the West’s leading interventionist power?
The answer in each case is a clear, firm non. In fact, postwar France has rarely had serious qualms about using force abroad. But it is instructive that France’s interventions have tended to be concentrated in or near the territory of its former colonial empire; since 1960, France has sent troops into northern and western Africa dozens of times, under Gaullist and Socialist governments alike. France’s colonial history still colors its military strategy in ways that French rhetoric now tends to obscure. Indeed, Socialist President François Hollande’s enthusiasm for intervention fits into a long and less than glorious French tradition.
To be sure, France’s stated reasons for intervention have changed over the years. When France sent paratroopers to save Gabon’s autocratic president Léon Mba from a coup attempt in 1964, French President Charles de Gaulle did not resort to high-flying rhetoric about human rights. His spokesmen talked of France’s treaty obligations to Gabon and the need to protect French citizens in the country. More cynical observers quickly noted France’s large stake in Gabon’s petrochemical reserves -- and the direct financial interest of some of de Gaulle’s inner circle in the enterprise. Africans themselves charged France with neocolonialism. The West African Pilot newspaper asserted that France, despite ostensibly surrendering power, was “still the real master in some African states.”