Vive la France

Article excerpt

Byline: Philip Delves Broughton

The French are a decisive, manly superpower. Unlike America.

In the early afternoon of January 12, four Rafale jets roared out of St-Dizier, 125 miles east of Paris, angling south toward the Mediterranean and their targets in West Africa: the training camps of Islamic fighters in northern Mali. Four hours later they struck.

It had already been a long day for France's president, Francois Hollande. His laborious domestic struggles over tax rates and spending cuts had been replaced by the dark and dangerous glamour of special operations and airstrikes.

At 4 a.m., Hollande had been woken at his apartment in the 15th arrondissement, to be told that a French commando raid in Somalia to rescue a French agent, Denis Allex, kidnapped by the Shabab rebel group in 2009, had failed. Not only had they not recovered the hostage, but two commandos had been killed in the process. Mali was a very different situation. "It doesn't matter if it was the right or wrong decision to intervene," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, the director at IFRI (Institut Francais des Relations Internationales). "It was the only decision." And it is one that has forced a sharp reappraisal of France's international position, especially in America. No more the vacillating "cheese-eating surrender monkey" of Iraq. France is now the go-to country in the evolving battle against Islamic groups in Africa, its paratroopers and pilots the advance troops in this fight. It not only smacks of Beau Geste and the Foreign Legion fending off the masked Tuaregs at Fort Zinderneuf, it is a very real and vital new role, a reassertion of French power independent of an ailing Europe and a NATO alliance weakening with every cut to defense budgets.

"De Gaulle said that he always had a 'certain idea of France,'" says Steven Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde, now a visiting professor at Duke. "But over the past 10 to 15 years, the only idea of France has been uncertainty. London and Berlin were much more vibrant. Paris has been living on the Woody Allen myth of a golden age. All anyone seems to do is complain and then complain about other people complaining. Mali at the very least is a place where the French have their moorings, where they can do things better than the Americans."

January has always been the favored month for fighting in the Sahara, before the heat slows everything down. Islamic jihadists had been moving south from their stronghold in northern Mali. Their convoys of Toyota trucks were still more than 600 miles north of Bamako, Mali's capital and home to most of the 6,000 French citizens living in the country. But on January 10, the president of Mali pulled the rip cord. He sent a letter to Hollande asking for help. Not to the Americans, or to NATO, but to the French.

The presidency of France's Fifth Republic was designed for one man, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and has evolved over time to accommodate the personalities of its various holders: the quiet cunning of Francois Mitterrand, the expansive bluster of Jacques Chirac, the hyperactivity of Nicolas Sarkozy. During his first year in office, Hollande, a career apparatchik, had not yet defined his presidency. His plans to cure the French economy with higher taxes had earned him the contempt of the business class. Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH and the richest man in both France and Europe, disclosed that he was seeking Belgian citizenship in order to escape the proposed new tax regime. The actor Gerard Depardieu protested by actually moving to Belgium and taking Russian citizenship. Many other wealthy French citizens began quietly shifting assets overseas.

Hollande's lack of political virility was highlighted whenever he had to stand next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel while she explained what ails Europe's economy. France remains precariously close to the economic abyss that has already swallowed Greece and Spain, and is menaced daily by the bond markets. …