The contemporary French are quite ambivalent when it comes to war. Along with Britain, France is the only European country with a real military potential (nuclear weapons, a rapid deployment force, a navy, a large armament and space industry) and is intent on keeping it that way (an impressive “French Pentagon” is currently under construction in South Paris). Successive administrations, both conservative and socialist, have engaged in military or peacekeeping operations abroad over the past forty years with or without an international warrant: in Subsaharan Africa, from Chad in the early 1970s to Mali earlier this year; in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya from the late 1970s to today; and in Bosnia and Serbia in 1995 and 1999. As long as military deaths are kept comparatively low or non-existent, civilians are not harmed, and risks are seen as minimal, there is almost no criticism or dissent.
The French enjoy feeling like a Great Power, and being a military power is evidently part of that deal. On the other hand, the French realize that they are only a Little Great Power, just like the British, and that their military potential is in fact quite limited.
Their defense budget ranks sixth in the world, and is less than one tenth of the U.S. defense budget ($59 billion to $682 billion). Subsaharan Africa is probably the only place where France can act alone, and even there, the latest operation — against Islamists in Mali — was backed in many ways by the United States. Everywhere else, they have no choice but to be America’s junior partners, unless they drop from the scene altogether. They have been uneasy about this dilemma; it has elicited much resentment. Jacques Chirac’s desistment from the second Iraq war in 2003 — a rare instance where the French asserted their Great Power status by opposing an American operation — was very popular for that reason.
Hollande decided to join forces with Barack Obama on Syria on several assumptions. First, he thought that France could not stay away from a momentous U.S. intervention in the Middle East without relinquishing its status as a Great Power with special authority on Middle Eastern issues. Second, he thought that backing the Obama administration would be more popular than just backing America, especially among his own voters, and that “protecting Muslims” in Syria would please the French Muslim vote, which overwhelmingly supports the Left. Third, since he had slightly benefited from the successful Mali campaign last spring in terms of personal popularity, he was looking for at least a similar boost in the case of a Syrian campaign.
Hollande may have misread the situation on all accounts. What was supposed to be Obama’s major show of force has been marred with dithering and shilly-shallying and a fierce political debate at home. Obama’s popularity is waning everywhere, including among his erstwhile liberal and radical supporters. And if the whole Syrian charade ends up with a Russian diplomatic victory, Hollande may be criticized for not having emulated Chirac’s move on Iraq in some measure.
François Fillon, who was for five years Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative prime minister and may run for president in 2017, has seen a window of opportunity here. He said on September 8 that he “would have more actively negotiated with the Russians,” and would vote, should the case be raised at the UN, against military intervention. Neocommunist Jean Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Left Front, not only welcomed Putin’s diplomatic move but insisted that the United States and France should exert similar pressures on Egypt … and Israel.
There is a modicum of solace for France and the French president, however, in the fact that the status of all Great Powers is being questioned in the wake of the Syrian crisis. France and Britain may be Little Great Powers, but Russia is not much more in spite of its diplomatic virtuosity, and Russia may have overstretched itself in challenging the United States on this issue. China may be a formidable potential player in international affairs, including in the Middle East, but China still lacks a global military capacity. As for the United States, it still is the only Super Power, but its global reach, under the Obama administration or any similarly inadequate leadership, may quickly evaporate.