The century, right from the start of it, was written in blood. Starting with the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, and the Famous French newspaper declaration of “Today we are all Americans…”, the decade wrote a future of a whole generation, and forged the World, with the greatest clash of ideologies since cold war. The clash between “free spirit” and “state-community-religious dominance”. Some thinkers are even saying that this is the historic turn back to “Laissez Faire”, a revival of freedom, the way classical age philosophers defined.
Moving back to the modern proverbial “cold cruel” world, the thing that however got the attention of many was the resurgence of FRANCE. Often termed as Colonial Hangover by some cynical press, no one can deny, that the name of only one nation was in the middle of every major international crisis, starting from Afghanistan, to not being in Iraq, to mediating in between Russia and Georgia, to Libya and Ivory Coast. One man, Nicolas Sarkozy, made headlines, with declaring that he himself was physically and actively present during the Berlin Wall collapse, to sitting in front of Taj Mahal and dissing Pakistan during Joint-Statement, in one of the most scathing attacks ever by any modern era Head of the States during their visit to India.
India and France goes back in history, and modern India is just not only a democratic sister to France, (Democracy is a pretty rare thing in South Asia, and that way, even with faults, India is different than its neighbours!) but much more than that. But since India is an Anglophone country, and we don’t have much access to mainstream French media and French opinions and analysis, I decided to form a set of common questions, answers to which will explain the position of France and the common notions on its neo-assertiveness.
It was a delight for me, that my questions was answered by some of the best bloggers and experts on Geo-Strategy and International Relations. Olivier Kempf from Etudes Géopolitiques Européennes et Atlantiques, Yannick Harrel from Cyberstrategie Est Ouest and JGP from Mon Blog Défense replies to my questions in this discussion. I am also grateful to Clarisse Carnets, who helped me regarding ideation, of this interview. It was an absolute pleasure, working with them.
1. World is seeing a resurgence of French International Relations. Right from joining NATO actively, to brokering a truce between Russia and Georgia, to active military muscle flexing in Libya and Ivory Coast. New found confidence, sudden realization of real politik or economic invincibility in European Union?
Kempf : France is used to act as a power, which may surprise from a European point of view. A kind of disinhibiting that contrasts with other pruderies…. What’s new is the acceptance of “national” action, out of “entangling alliances” (G. Washington), both in NATO and EU.
Harrel : The French political system is especially presidential. It is depending enormously on the personality of the President. However France never left the foreign policy arena : it used more its soft power than its hard power formerly. In 2003 for example, France refused to engage in Iraq: its influence on the international affairs was important but of another nature. Strong activity is not synonymous with great effectiveness. It is true however that because of its universalism mentality, France cannot adopt an isolationist position on the most important international matters.
JGP : Let’s put it straight: France is not the world’s leading power, but it has some strong (diplomatic, economic, military, cultural) assets to defend its interests that spread all over the globe, which is quite rare for a country of only 60 million people. Even if its influence (and the results achieved!) in all the examples quoted in the question must not be overrated, this “resurgence” is in the continuity of quite an old vision according to which France has a “special mission” in international relations.
Furthermore, the absence of political union and leadership at the European level encourages the main countries of the Old Continent to take unilateral or bilateral (in the case of the newly (re)created France-UK couple) initiatives.
2. World opinion of Sarkozy varies from an eccentric emotional lover boy, to a man who is very practical and shrewd, to a patriot who wants French dominance in World affairs back, even with a streak of dictatorship, to a man who is running after personal glory and immortality, and a place in history. Which one is true…or is it everything together?
Kempf : He is a pragmatic, which is a surprise, when you compare to the image foreigners have of French character, usually considered as theoretical, ideologist…But here, Sarkozy is mirroring French character, much more globalized than believed…
Harrel : It is too early to conclude yet : on the international scene, it takes years to establish an assessment of the conducted actions. A fact is however undeniable: universalism leads the French President and his foreign ministers to be attentive and active. The selected manners and options are not always the good ones but the current President is the fruit of this political practice.
JGP : From a purely French domestic perspective it is quite to answer as we lack hindsight, being engulfed in the politicking game, one year before the Presidential election. One may say that, like all first-rank politicians with a big ego, Sarkozy’s main objective is to get elected and leave a trace in History. Some observers in France think he has, with his manners, desecrated the presidential function. Anyway, speaking of dictatorship may be excessive, even though there is an authoritarian trend in many European countries.
3. Burqa Ban…good, bad, ugly? Necessary, irrelevant, baseless? Cultural jingoism, Liberty equality fraternity, Islamophobia?
Kempf : No. Essence of the French national balance, made of secularity. French passion is not freedom, but equality. Showing one’s face is the signal of that equality.
Harrel : It is a domestic policy very related on its history and the constitution of the Republic. “Laicité” is one of the main republican principles which is very specific to France. It is a very contemporary debate to know if this principle must evolve or if it must remain frozen. However and as in 1905 (date of the first law of “laicité”), this debate has also repercussions in the international environment : the French authorities cannot be unaware of this reality but they must firstly decide what is best in the interest of the social peace.
JGP : Based on the very French concept of “laïcité” (stronger than mere secularity / secularism), this law, according to its supporters, aims at ensuring human dignity and equality by “living the Republic with an unveiled face”. The ban applies both to burqa and niqab, worn by a few hundred/thousand women out of the estimated 5 million French Muslims, in all public spaces. It thus concerns only a small minority that some moderate Muslim authorities have described as “sectarian”. It must be linked to the broader concern in Europe (and the Western world) towards Islam and Muslim immigrants from Africa and Asia, and the recent electoral successes of far-right parties in several countries.
It could be “interesting” though to see how French policemen will enforce this ban on the Champs-Elysées when the place is full of rich Saudi tourists.
4. We have seen French reservation on NATO. France have always advocated democratic values, but we see a little different behavior in regard to different Middle Eastern countries…is that going to be self defeating in the long run?
Kempf : I don’t understand what you mean by mentioning the link between French reservation to NATO, and the advocacy for democratic values… As regards the intervention in Libya, that’s a bet for future.
JGP : Almost any country in the world can be accused of double standard policies, even China who pretends not to interfere in domestic affairs. However, it is also true that France often presents itself as a human rights champion (“le pays des Droits de l’Homme”). This leads to some contradictions when real politik and short term interests contradict moral values. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner even stated that there was “a permanent contradiction between human rights and a state’s (even France) foreign policy”.
In the long term, it could be relevant for France to stop giving the impression that it continuously teaches a lesson to the entire world, while at the same time supporting dictators in its former colonies. Maybe we should invest in more backstage lobbying, which may not be as grandiloquent, but surely more effective.
5. What should be French position regarding Israel and Russia? How is the newly assertive France looking forward to engage the two most contentious foreign policy issues that have dogged her in the recent times?
Kempf : With Israel, believe in French pragmatism. With Russia, a shared interest.
Harrel : Only one word: pragmatism. France was always very concerned by the questions of the Mediterranean world, it is logical consequently that each country of this geographical zone is not indifferent for it. Russia is a historical partner of France: the negotiations are not always obvious but often the shared interests make it possible to overcome the differences.
JGP : In both cases France and Europe must seize the opportunity to play a go-between role: while the US have always been our natural ally and partner, their position, especially in the Middle-East, is not totally aligned with our own interests that could benefit from a more assertive involvement.
6. Finally, France and India share historic relations. Its one of the most successful defence partner of India, and is commonly known as democratic sisters. France was the only country who didn’t sanction India after Nuclear tests, and even supported India in relation to Pakistan. We see the “deal of the century” 126 fighter jets, which can change the geo-strategic balance of the South Asia, might also go to Rafale, which is in the last stage…how significant is that on a strategic and global aspect?
Kempf : There was a long French neglect towards India, since the decolonization. The French dream of Asia was incarnated in Indochina, with the well-known output it results in: from that time, France abandoned its fascination to Asia. It’s coming back by the last ten years, with a new fascination to China. However, France should bet on India, who is a better challenger, used to look for a “third way” since decades: between US and USSR yesterday, between US and China today. Capitalizing on that shared interest would be a good idea for both parties.
Harrel : France cannot be unaware of India, both for major economic opportunities as for historical relations. This “deal of the century” would be especially an excellent opportunity so that French and Indians learn with better knowing and appreciate each other. The economic exchanges must especially be reinforced by political, military and cultural exchanges at the highest level. This geopolitical prospect is filling with enthusiasm because realistic for the two States. France does not have any dispute with India, and India could count on France to have a serious support within the European Union and the United Nations.
JGP : The interest for India in France goes back to several centuries, especially thanks to Antoine Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, a famous orientalist who translated the Upanishads into Latin in 1804. Today, India is seen in France as a first-class world leader in the making, a kind of democratic alternative to China. But it’s true that this latter exerts a far greater fascination on our leaders and medias, even though India is seen closer to the West (on a strategic perspective).
After the Indian nuclear tries in 1998, France differentiated itself from most of the international community because it wanted to maintain the dialogue on non-proliferation, seeing India as a reliable strategic partner. France is also a strong advocate of a better integration of India and other emerging countries in global governance (G20, UN…), to counter-balance unilateral (US) or bilateral (US / China) initiatives. However there is also the perception that India is becoming an economic rival, especially in the high-tech industry. This perception is reinforced by the fact that France is only a minor investor in India. During his latest official visit in December 2010, President Sarkozy insisted on strengthening our economic ties: more investments, more exchanges by 2012.
Regarding this MRCA “deal of the century”, it could indeed seal a long-term partnership. The competitor to the Rafale in this last stage of the process is the Eurofighter Typhoon: this reveals a lack of European cooperation and integration that may constitute a threat for our technological and military independence. France has been so far unable to export its Rafale, which questions, should Dassault lose both in India and in Brazil, the future of our fighter jet industry.