Why France's Military Is Stepping Up To The World

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Popular support is waning in France for keeping the French army in Afghanistan, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched two more military campaigns, in Libya and Ivory Coast. Host Scott Simon speaks with French historian and political scientist Nicole Bacharon about the politics behind the apparent change to a more aggressive policy.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Popular support is waning in France for keeping the French Army in Afghanistan. But President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched two more military campaigns. French jets opened the air war over Libya to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from further attacks on civilians. And then President Sarkozy sent extra troops to the Ivory Coast to lead the United Nations peacekeeping efforts, enforcing former President Laurent Gbagbo from power.

We're joined now from New York by French political analyst and associate researcher at Paris Institute of Political Studies, Nicole Bacharan.

Ms. Bacharan, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor NICOLE BACHARAN (Historian, Political Scientist, Institute of Political Studies, Paris): Yeah, I'm glad to be here with you today.

SIMON: This is not your Gran Paris, France is it?

Prof. BACHARAN: Its more in tune with what Nicolas Sarkozys presidential campaign sounded like in 2007.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BACHARAN: But then, you know, his exercise of power over the last three years didn't resemble at all this presidential campaign nor what we're seeing right now.

SIMON: Yeah. But what's changed you think over the past few months?

Prof. BACHARAN: I dont quite know because our president is a very interesting, but unpredictable person. And I'm quite sure in his current stances there is conviction. I mean he's not known to be a cynical man, but obviously he's put his heart into this human rights issue as well as into the power issues that are right there in a way that wasn't expected anymore. He turned around his position on Libya all of a sudden, you know, within a couple of days because it was a moral issue, a human rights issue. Ivory Coast is different. It has to do with a long, you know, tradition of French intervention in Africa.

SIMON: Of course, we should note Bernard Kouchner was French foreign minister and he actually is one of the authors of the call for humanitarian intervention in many ways, isn't he?

Prof. BACHARAN: Yes. Absolutely. Bernard Kouchner was an activist before, you know, getting in really into political politics, if I may say so, and he was one of the creators of the Doctors Without Borders. And he tried and eventually he, you know, to an extent succeeded to convince the world that there was such a thing as the right of intervention for humanitarian reasons. Now the term has changed to the responsibility to protect. But it's been, you know, approved and voted for in the United Nations.

SIMON: A number of times over the past generation France has put paratroopers in some African capital, haven't they?

Prof. BACHARAN: I think the French have always considered that somehow Africa was their backyard. I mean there was obviously the colonial experience and after the colonial experience there is a rather muddy complex type of relationship that we call France Afrique, and in one word which means intermingle and it's not always very clean.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BACHARAN: But there has been a number of direct French intervention in various former French colonial countries. One of them in the 1980s being in Chad against Colonel Gadhafi, actually. So the last time I would say of such a direct intervention was 2002 in the Ivory Coast, and now it's after an appeal from the United Nations but it keeps with the tradition.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And it must be asked, Ms. Bacharan, what's your reading at this distance of whether or not President Sarkozy has improved his prospects with these interventions?

Prof. BACHARAN: There is a strong support for the intervention in Libya and you don't see any improvement in the polls concerning Nicolas Sarkozy personal positions. I mean his job approval is in the low 20s.

SIMON: Contrary to maybe the impression weve had here in the United States, the French have put more into their military budget than we might appreciate here. Haven't they?

Prof. BACHARAN: Absolutely. There is an important military budget in France. There is an important spending for new weapons and new research and new systems. I think what might have blurred a little the reading of all this is that for quite some time there was a feeling that the French were no longer a great power - which they are not - and but they wanted to pretend to be one and talk like one. But when time came to action there wasn't anybody there anymore. And that's changed right now in the last couple of weeks, I would say. So it's a bit, you know, unsettling for people to try to understand what's going on with France.

SIMON: Nicole Bacharan of Paris Institute of Political Studies, thanks so much.

Prof. BACHARON: Thanks to you.

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