In the last few years, France has asserted itself on the international scene in a very active way — first under President Nicolas Sarkozy and then even more under President Francois Hollande. It led the way among Western powers to intervene in Libya in order to oust Muammar Gaddafi. It has pushed the hardest line of all Western powers on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It has intervened unilaterally in Mali to stop the downward sweep of Islamic armed movements. Hollande was received virtually as a hero when he went recently to Israel, because of his hard line on negotiations with Syria and Iran. And now France has sent troops to try to restore order in the Central African Republic.
This is the same France that, 10 years ago, was being pilloried by the U.S. Congress for its refusal to go along with military intervention in Iraq, to the point that the term “French fries” was publicly rejected by many in the United States. This is the same France that was regarded as far too pro-Palestinian by the Israelis. This is the same France that not so long ago publicly renounced the concept of Francafrique — France’s presumed duty to keep order in its African former colonies — as no longer appropriate behavior. What happened to explain this turnaround?
There are, of course, some internal factors that contributed to these developments. Because of its colonial history, France today has a large number of Muslim residents and citizens who are largely an economic underclass. Many of the younger Muslims have become increasingly militant, and some of them have been attracted to the more radical versions of Islamist politics. While this shift has occurred throughout much of Europe, it seems particularly strong in France. It has therefore evoked a political reaction not only from extreme-right xenophobic groups like the National Front party but also from people holding unyielding versions of secularism (laicite) on the political left. Today the most popular Socialist minister seems to be Interior Minister Manuel Valls, whose major activity is taking extra-strong measures against illegal migrants, mostly Muslim migrants, to France.
Furthermore, at a time when neoconservative ideas seem to have passed their prime in U.S. politics, the French equivalent, centering on the slogan of “responsabilite de proteger,” has been getting stronger within France. One of its leading figures, Bernard Kouchner (a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders), was a foreign minister under Sarkozy. Another leading figure, Bernard-Henri Levy, wielded formidable influence in government under Sarkozy and still does under Hollande.