Losing his battle at home, French President Hollande fights abroad

August 21

France's President Francois Hollande flanked by Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore (right) arrives at the airport of Timbuktu, the second step of his one-day visit in Mali in February 2013. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

As a country in which books are sacred, France should be worried.

Among France's current top political bestsellers are titles such as “French, Are You Ready for Your Next Revolution?,” “France – Suicide of a Nation,” “How France Destroyed Its Power,” as well as “The Country We Tear Down.” President François Hollande ranks high on the cover of a book entitled “So Far, So Bad.”

Although it is scientifically proven that the French tend toward pessimism, the mood among writers reflects a larger, troublesome trend. France - "la Grande Nation" and second-largest economic power in the euro zone after Germany - has lost its confidence. On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed France and other countries for hindering the euro zone’s economic recovery. There was zero economic growth in France within the last six months, and while Germany’s unemployment level recently sank to a record low, France is experiencing a record-high jobless rate.

Having been able to achieve little economic progress, Hollande has turned abroad to restore the international weight France once had. While the United States has retrenched from certain issues, France has been willing to fill the gap.

Last week, Hollande's friend and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius emerged as one of the loudest continental European voices supporting arms deliveries to the Iraqi Kurds. Hollande was ready to intervene in Syria in 2013 alongside President Obama, and he sent soldiers to Mali and the Central African Republic the same year with the aim to fight terrorists or to calm ethnic tensions. Were moral considerations the only cause, though? 

According to Paris-based German Marshall Fund expert Martin Michelot, France's heavy military involvement on the international stage also "serves as a rhetoric bargaining chip in the discussions with its European partners." 

"Being criticized for his indecisiveness, François Hollande really wants to show that he is the 'Chef des Armées'," a high-ranking French defense ministry official who was not authorized to speak on this matter, told The Washington Post on Thursday.

Hollande is publicly perceived as hesitant to such an extent that it seemed almost manly and courageous when he separated from his former partner Valerie Trierweiler after his affair with an actress was made public by a magazine in January. Many French were surprised about Hollande's exceptionally clear cut decision to split up, and his popularity immediately rose.

The president's foreign decisions seem to follow a similar pattern.

Contrary to the U.S. public, which has increasingly grown opposed to foreign interventions, the French support Hollande's recent foreign operations. Hence, foreign battle grounds are seen less as a risk by governmental advisers, but rather as a necessity to acquire real presidential credentials. Risks abroad were and still could be a chance at home for Hollande.

At first, the strategy seemed to work. Shortly after France intervened in Mali, Hollande's approval rates went up. But the success was only short-lived. Domestic struggles soon caught up, and since then, public opinion of Hollande has gotten so bad that it seemed like a success when only 75 percent said they were discontent with him in a July survey. To put that in context: In the most recent Gallup survey, Obama's performance was disliked by 53 percent of respondents.

The bad news for Hollande doesn't stop there: While the right-wing Front National party is gaining votes, anti-Semitism is high, and many French perceive the current crisis only as a glimpse of what might be ahead. They hope for a more resolute, stronger president who can not only restore the country’s economy, but also their pride.

The French self-perception rests on its history as a strong power in the world and its "idea, or the illusion, that France as a nation remains able to influence the course of world events", as Olivier de France, the research director of the influential Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques in Paris, told The Post. The self-perception as a strong nation goes back to Napoleon Bonaparte's European conquests. Particularly after World War II, however, France developed a strong fear that its military could ever be defeated again by an enemy similar to the Nazis.

According to expert de France, the country's presidents have subsequently always "sought to maintain an element of grandeur in French foreign policy." When they refer to the notion of grandeur, their self-perception as a powerful nation is one aspect, but the idea that France is able to make the morally right decisions is equally crucial. An example often mentioned is the country's refusal to participate in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Foreign politics has differed between presidents, but the key principle of France being among the world's moral vanguard has survived partisan fights. "Shedding the illusions of grandeur would mean that the French had to accept the fact that their country is a middle power. This may help to explain why war fatigue is not as widespread as in the United States," says de France.

Other factors contribute to the country's unique foreign policy: France has many former colonies, such as Mali, the Central African Republic and parts of Syria, and it still feels committed to them. Furthermore, the country is home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, and the power over foreign affairs decisions lies mainly in the hands of the president, which enables him to act quickly.

"Traditionally, foreign policy and defense matters have been understood as the 'private garden' of the heads of states. Even opponents agree that one cannot interfere into the president's actions on these issues," explains defense expert Patrice Dabos, who teaches at Sciences Po Paris.

While Hollande's dedication to foreign conflicts is remarkable and unlikely to fade away, the fascination for the country's military involvement is a more general phenomenon. According to the bestselling list of retailer Fnac, the French read pessimistic books about their future but draw inspiration from the past. Currently, the best-selling historical book is called "On War". Written in the first half of the 19th century, it consists of  recommendations for successful military strategies.

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at the Washington Post.
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