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.” 

The neocolonial relationship became derisively known -- and not just among Africans -- as Françafrique. As late as 1985, thanks largely to the activities of the French energy conglomerate Elf Aquitaine, France had 26,000 citizens in Gabon -- more than during the colonial period itself.  Indeed, France managed, in some ways, to quietly expand its role in Africa in the decades after decolonization, most notably with its military interventions in countries that had not even belonged to the French colonial empire, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or Zaire, as it was called in 1978, when France led an operation there against Katangan rebels). 

By the time of France’s last intervention in the Central African Republic, Paris’ rhetoric had changed somewhat. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, whom France had largely supported after he seized power in a 1966 coup, had become an embarrassment to his patrons. Not only did he have one of the continent’s worst human rights records, including murders of schoolchildren and the use of torture, but he also invited worldwide derision by declaring himself Emperor Bokassa I in a lavish coronation ceremony modeled on Napoleon’s. In Operation Barracuda, launched in 1979, French commandos and paratroops seized control of strategic sites in the capital, allowing Bokassa’s enemies to topple him. The administration of centrist French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, while claiming merely to have supported a home-grown coup, justified its role by excoriating Bokassa’s human rights record.

But given France’s deep strategic and economic ties to Africa, it is hard to conceive of any French intervention there as purely humanitarian. Soon after Operation Barracuda, for instance, the French newspaper Le canard enchaîné revealed that Bokassa had personally given Giscard d’Estaing up to a quarter million dollars’ worth of diamonds, suggesting that the intervention had taken place at least in part to terminate what had become an embarrassing relationship. Furthermore, France had an interest in reining in Qaddafi, who had been making efforts to expand his influence in the region, including in the Central African Republic, since taking control of Libya earlier that decade. This competition with Qaddafi would continue for years, notably in Chad, where France staged a particularly important intervention against Libyan-backed rebels in 1983 and 1984. It’s impossible to understand France’s enthusiastic participation in Qaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 outside the context of this competition. (In a similar vein, then-President Jacques Chirac’s strong stance against the Iraq War, however prescient, cannot be entirely disconnected from his long-standing ties to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.)

France still has extensive strategic and economic interests in Africa. Notably, it depends in part on African uranium, particularly from Niger, to fuel the nuclear power plants that generate three-quarters of its electricity. (This was a clear, although mostly unstated, factor in the ongoing large-scale French action in Niger’s neighbor Mali, which also has uranium reserves of its own.) Africa remains an important market for French manufactures, and as many as 240,000 French citizens live on the continent. And even though the heyday of French missionary activity in Africa has long passed, France has retained an affinity for those African groups which embraced its religion and culture. France has mostly tended to back Christians in conflicts along Islam’s porous southern border on the continent. 

The French public has a long history of supporting these military operations. In de Gaulle’s day, they were seen as a sign that France, despite its defeat in World War II and the loss of its empire, retained great-power status. Today, the support is also bound up with pride that France can take the lead in defense of humanitarian principles. It helps that the operations have mostly been small-scale, usually involving a few thousand soldiers at most, with little risk of extensive French casualties. The interventions in Libya and Mali each received support from over 65 percent of the French public, and the latter helped, at least temporarily, to revive Hollande’s dismal approval levels.

Hollande remains perfectly aware of the difficulties of separating French and humanitarian interests in Africa. Far more than his predecessors, he has sought widespread international backing for French interventions. The present action in Central African Republic is a case in point. French troops are currently serving alongside an African Union force authorized by a December 5 vote in the UN Security Council. Hollande also tried, with little success, to get European Union members to join the operation. (Belgium and Poland provided transport planes; Germany declined any role.) The French president received widespread African support, and justified the action in the pure language of humanitarian intervention, pledging to “restore security … protect civilian populations and ensure access to humanitarian aid.” And the country desperately needs such steps to be taken. Since March, fighting between Muslim and Christian militias in the Central African Republic has created a humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that 639,000 of its citizens -- over a fifth of the population -- have been driven from their homes.

Even so, it has been difficult for France to escape its African past. In late December, thousands of members of the Muslim Seleka rebel movement in the Central African Republic staged a protest against the intervention, charging that France had not come to restore peace but to suppress the country’s Muslim minority. If the situation deteriorates further, it is not at all certain that France can succeed in playing the role of the neutral, humanitarian peacemaker. Charges of neocolonialism have again appeared in the African media.

Arguably, if France wants genuinely to establish itself as a leader in purely humanitarian interventions, it should do so anywhere but Africa, where the past weighs so heavily. But past tradition is constraining in other ways. For France, a medium-sized power with perennial economic woes and budget crises, effective intervention may be possible only in Africa. It is where France has experience, expertise, long-standing contacts (facilitated by the French language), and important overseas military bases. So for the foreseeable future, whatever the goals of a particular operation, France’s effective sphere of military action is likely to remain pretty much what it has been for the past 130 years: its former colonial empire (and a few states that border it). In that sense, the recent interventions by Hollande augur nothing new at all -- aside, perhaps, from the status accorded to France’s military valor by Americans.

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  • DAVID A. BELL is a professor of history at Princeton University. His most recent book is The First Total War.
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