France flexes military might in Libya, Ivory Coast

Image: Rafale fighter jets in flight
French Rafale fighter jets have been used to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone.AMBOISE / ECPAD / Sirpa Air / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

This year, in both Libya and Ivory Coast, one country has launched military strikes and dragged the international community into action against entrenched autocrats: France.

It's the same France that vigorously opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq eight years ago and has advocated trying every possible approach before bringing in the guns in other international crises.

Analysts say the extraordinary turnaround may be rooted in a revival by President Nicolas Sarkozy of traditional French notions of high-minded interventionism, as well as an attempt by the French leader to ease Europe away from its longtime dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.

At a time of upheaval in the Arab world and Asia's rising economic might, experts say, France wants to boost Europe's relevance with tough, human rights-based military interventions, and quash lingering rumblings about the continent's decline.

There's also another possible factor at play: Sarkozy faces a likely re-election campaign next year — and he may be betting that promoting France's values of human rights can be a vote-winning appeal to the French craving for "grandeur."

The intervention in Libya is also a startling personal departure for Sarkozy, who generously welcomed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to Paris in 2007, when the two countries signed a raft of arms and business deals. Last month, Sarkozy rallied European leaders against Gadhafi when he launched a bloody crackdown on protesters.

In Ivory Coast, a former French colony, France became the first country to fire its weapons on forces of Ivory Coast's strongman Laurent Gbagbo this week. Its actions there are linked to its important economic and cultural stakes and a longtime, if relatively discreet, military presence in the country.

Within the European Union, France and Britain are the biggest military heavyweights in a bloc where some countries, notably economic powerhouse Germany, are hesitant to see their troops on foreign battlefields — a hang-up that most French don't have.

"I think that France today can be proud to have participated in the defense and the expression of democracy in Ivory Coast," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament Tuesday, as France's foreign minister said Gbagbo was negotiating the terms of his surrender.

On Monday, French and U.N. helicopters opened fire in Ivory Coast and neutralized heavy weaponry, like rocket launchers and cannon, of loyalists of Gbagbo, who has refused to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara — whom the United Nations says won last year's presidential race.

France's 1,600-strong Licorne force in Ivory Coast has its roots in a U.N. resolution aimed to cement a cease-fire that followed a civil war in the African country in 2002, all but propping up Gbagbo as he was consolidating his grip on power.

There and in Libya, France is seeking to shake Europe out of its hesitancy to use force when needed — and possible — and to defend its citizens and values, said one analyst.

"In France, (officials) see opportunities to get involved — often in Europe's name — to raise the European flag, because aside from of our British friends, there's reticence about use of force," said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank. "The French think that Europe isn't active enough in supporting human rights."

He said France wants to move past hard lessons like those from the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia, where delays, debates and ineffective diplomacy led to many civilian deaths.

"The lesson of the Balkans was massacres, with French soldiers held hostage, terrible images — and with the Americans finally coming to help us restore order," Giuliani said. "You get the feeling among French officials that nobody wants to continue on this direction."

But analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges said France's military actions in Libya and Ivory Coast shouldn't be lumped together: the only similarity is that they target autocrats whose regimes have killed civilians in a bid to cling to power.

"On the one hand there's the 'idealistic' operation in Libya, and there's the realistic operation in Ivory Coast — dictated by concrete interests," said Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of International Relations, IFRI.

Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at IFRI, said that after France took a major role in the air strikes against Gadhafi's troops, the country was nearly compelled politically to act in Ivory Coast too.

"After France's intervention in Libya, it would not have been understood if France were to do nothing in Ivory Coast," he said, noting the thousands of French expatriates and France's cultural ties to the African country.

Sarkozy knows the upside of European activism: During France's European Union presidency in 2008, he drew credit for helping negotiate an end to fighting between Russia and Georgia.

His aim is "to show that Europe wants to exist — even if through only some of its member states" — especially when President Barack Obama has hoped Europe will shoulder more of its own security, Giuliani said.

In Libya and Ivory Coast, Sarkozy is making a "bold bet," Moisi said.

"It's risky, but at the end of the day, (the bet is) Gadhafi will be out, Gbagbo will be out and the international community will say 'Well, the French president played a key role,'" he said.