By Pierre Dugué a first-year BA War Studies coming from France. He is interested in Western (Europe and U.S.) grand strategy, intelligence and counter-insurgency operations.
French national ‘Bastille’ day’s military parade going down the Champs-Elysées
France and war is a rather long story
As we this year celebrate the centenary of the bravely-fought battles of Verdun and the Somme, France’s memoirs are nevertheless still overshadowed by the military humiliation of 1940 that led to the unconditional surrender of the power that had once ruled the world and made Britain tremble. Yet, France has been rebuilding its military might ever since the beginning of the Cold War – with De Gaulle securitizing a siege at the Security Council, the first nuclear weapons tested in the Pacific and Prime Minister De Villepin saying ‘non’ to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s intervention in Iraq. Although the days of Louis XIV and Napoleon have now passed, unlike what the media worldwide seem to infer , France is not done. Then what role should it be playing within the international system? Should it be a military one only?
A declining country?
‘Decline’ is a rather simple idea, it is however hardly effectively measurable on the long term. From 2007 onwards France’s economy has been shrinking leading to mass unemployment, restructuration and financial imbalance. Furthermore 2015, its anus oribilis, saw a huge decrease in France’s still fluctuating GDP (0.7%) . Indeed, the two terrorist attacks and the state of emergency that ensued have had a considerable impact on tourism– one of the country’s main sources of income – and French commerce in general. Politically, the population is divided and utterly mistrusts Mr. Hollande – 75% unsatisfied . Hence the fact that – with the 2017 presidential elections coming – the world fears the rise of the Front National, the far-right party. Actually, recent socio-political divisions – due to the rebirth of nationalism triggered by both terrorism and migration – have drawn the world’s attention to France and emphasized its blurred and diminishing influence within the EU . In fact, the recent unsustainable situation in Calais coupled with migrant-related crimes such as the aggressions in Cologne have torn the French apart: half of the people’s position is now aligned on the FN’s, the other half has a strong anti-FN position. Consequently, Marine Le Pen demanded a referendum to be held à propos a potential ‘Franxit’ to ‘protect’ France against what it strived to create .
Considered unstable, weakened and dangerous due to economic, social and political factors at the national level (even more since the proclamation of the state of emergency that some relate to a new ‘martial law’ – establishing ‘no-go’ zones for instance ), au contraire France shines internationally in terms of foreign policy.
French soldier at the Louvres museum after the proclamation of the state of emergency
France and international interventionism: the case of Africa
Although reluctant at engaging the army in any sort of conflict for many years, Paris has followed the U.S.-led coalitions in 1991 and 2001. The country constitutes a key asset to the UN and NATO when it comes to peace-keeping and humanitarian missions around the globe . Besides, France has had its own missions that have reinforced the country’s international presence and decision-making, particularly in Africa. Indeed, four major military operations have been launched since Mr. Sarkozy’s mandate (2007-2012) onwards .
‘Operation Harmattan’ in 2010-2011 whose aim was to bring down Colonel Gaddafi’s regime – following the Arab Spring and the civil war – by involving air and sea powers in a campaign of surgical strikes against Gaddafi and Islamist-held areas. This nonetheless led to Islamist groups fleeing the country to thrive in Africa, benefiting from the weakening of some States. Hence the UN-approved ‘Operation Serval’ launched in January 2013 by Mr. Hollande which ousted AQIM from Northern Mali and helped maintain the integrity of the regime that had asked for assistance (Resolution 2085). France has also deployed troops in the Central African Republic (Operation Sangaris) in 2013-2014 where a coup d’état had drastically destabilized the country; an ethnic-religious genocide between Muslims and Christians was feared by the UN which approved this intervention (Resolution 2127).
These successful operations were backed up by the international community for they were mainly counter-insurgency missions aimed at restoring/maintaining one’s sovereignty in accordance with international law and principles. France has also been joining coalitions and has exercised coercive diplomacy to influence political decisions in order to put an end to humanitarian crisis, especially in the Ivory Coast before 2011. The protection of sovereignty and populations – although contradictory in some cases – are priorities to Paris.
French soldiers deployed in the Central African Republic in 2013 (Operation Sangaris)
Grand strategy and military capabilities: the case of Syria
France’s grand strategy in the Middle East has been made clear: a governmental transition in Syria without Bashar al-Assad, the destruction of Daesh in Syria and Iraq and the support to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their interventions in Yemen and the Middle-East in general [ç]. To fulfil this political purpose, France has mobilized and deployed its military might over the region.
Following the U.S. on its ‘war on terror’ for the sake of democracy, freedom from want and fear and international stability, France has now been fully engaged in Syria since September 2015 under the name ‘Operation Chammal’ . At first hesitant at engaging its armed forces – going through an ‘identity crisis’ concerned with France’s international place in the future – Paris has launched a series of airstrikes against IS-held positions in Syria in September 2015 following its prevailing doctrine of protecting populations and sovereignty against insurgencies . Ever since November 2015, France has intensified this military effort especially targeting Raqqa, and has actively participated to the withdrawal of Daesh troops from territories now in control of the rebels or the Kurds .
In order to effectively conduct these operations, France is endowed with military bases covering both the Mediterranean and the Middle East: the airbase of Calvi in Corsica and the military base in the UAE territory . Furthermore, the deployment of nuclear submarines and the French ‘Charles de Gaulle’ nuclear aircraft-carrier enhances that capacity of deployment as well as it allows joint operations to be carried out especially with the RAF and the U.S. Air Force .
Cooperation is key and Paris is insisting on the need for a joint commandership to be established. François Hollande has demanded that intelligence be shared between agencies to maximise the effectiveness of the coalition. The DGSE (French intelligence agency) is most likely to be training rebel troops and gathering intelligence on the ground along with the CIA and the MI6 – although unofficial, special units are constantly being sent to the ground. Nevertheless, cooperation may be compromised. In fact, France has been trying to limit the involvement of Turkey in the conflict due to suspicions concerning the Erdogan regime financing Daesh and feeding their effort against the Kurds. Likewise, France appears to not be supporting Israel – it is on the verge of recognising Palestine a State . Both policies heavily differ vis-à-vis the U.S. grand strategy in the region. It therefore weakens the coalition and slows down the resolution of the Syrian conflict, but affirms France’s independent authority within the international community as a powerful nation.
The ‘Charles de Gaulle’ sailing out of Toulon harbour to be deployed off the Turkish coast
The army to save the day?
What conclusions are we to draw from this obvious dichotomy of a country nationally divided and rather disregarded, but internationally brilliantly effective and therefore key to the community of States? Are the armed forces France’s raison d’être? It is clear the army and the nuclear arsenal have participated in its acknowledgement as a great nation in the international system. But that goes even further. Actually the influence of the military – usually abroad – blurs the traditional distinction made between the national and international spheres (state of emergency excluded). French scientific-military genius and warlike engineering skills have tremendously contributed to strengthening the economy in the long term . Indeed, companies such as Airbus (combat helicopters), Thalès (military innovations), Safran (aeronautics), Dassault (military aviation) and Nexter (FAMAS rifle) are very influential in the stock market. As a matter of fact, the purchase of Dassault-crafted ‘Rafales’ by both the Qatar and Egypt has rectified France’s commercial balance in 2015 . Besides, commemorations and military celebrations such as the Russian-style military parade held every year on national day gather the usually divided population to celebrate the country’s History and glorious days to come.
Paris should, in the future, play a more straightforward military role within supranational instances (UN, NATO), but also as a nation that is aware of its capacity of imposing its – and therefore the West’s – will. France’s military might is probably its ‘ultimate’ grandeur to the sense it is the greatest and most influential/decisive both nationally and internationally, nonetheless it is far from being its last.
Reducing the country to its army is missing out a lot. Paris is now expecting a 1.5% growth in its GDP for 2016 and the breath-taking waves of patriotism that ensued from both terrorist attacks are explicitly indicating that France is not a declining country. The troubled period it is facing is everything but new. For instance, remembering the presidential elections of 2002 when the FN ended up facing Jacques Chirac in the final round; France mobilized and voted Chirac at 81%. As divided and unstable as you want to see it, France still has this exceptional ability to rebound and to make the right decisions at the right time. Because obviously, France is not done and remains key to the international community of States.
The Eiffel Tower had been lightened in red-white-blue following November’s attacks
 http://www.insee.fr/fr/mobile/conjoncture/tableau-bord-conjoncture.asp (First graph)
1-Military parade: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18842638
2- French Soldier and the Louvres: http://www.smh.com.au/world/paris-attacks-day-four-world-leaders-step-up-fight-against-islamic-state-20151116-gl0h67.html