PARIS – In 2003, France , under President Jacques Chirac, took the lead in opposing America ’s planned invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq . French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s flamboyant speech at the United Nations encapsulated the “spirit of resistance” against what proved to be a dangerous adventure. In 2011, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has again taken a highly visible stand on a question of war and peace, except that now the French, together with the British, are leading the fight to protect Libya ’s people from their erratic, brutal leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Why does France seem to crave such prominence? In the eyes of the French, France ’s international status remains a key ingredient in forming their own national identity. The way we French are perceived by others affects how we perceive ourselves, and nothing is more troubling for us than to be perceived with indifference or, worse, not to be noticed at all.
Suddenly, with the Libya issue, we can tell ourselves that we are catching up with Germany , whose pusillanimity is striking; we are showing the way to the United States ; and the French (and British) flags are deployed in the streets of “liberated” Libya , together with that country’s own new flag. And, just as suddenly, the French, according to early polls, are proud again to be French.
France’s seemingly natural propensity to intervene is reinforced in this case by three key factors: Sarkozy, Qaddafi, and the context of a wider Arab revolution. The Sarkozy factor is fundamental. The French president loves crises, with their concomitant surge of adrenaline. For him, this is what power is about: taking hard decisions under unfavorable circumstances.
Of course, domestic considerations are not absent from Sarkozy’s thinking. In 2007, when he played a key role in the liberation of Bulgarian nurses imprisoned by Qaddafi, Libya ’s leader was rewarded with what looked like a legitimacy prize: an official visit to Paris . He was no longer a pariah, but an eccentric partner.
Today, by contrast, it all looks as if intervention may re-legitimate Sarkozy in the eyes of French citizens, whose votes he will need in next year’s presidential election. An energetic and daring gambler, Sarkozy is taking a high but legitimate risk that he can retake the moral (and political) high ground.
Beyond Sarkozy is Qaddafi, the ideal villain. A caricature of a despot, he personifies the type of odious adversary whom all democrats want to see defeated. His behavior has been abominable for decades – and not only towards his people. The terrorist attacks on Western targets that he ordered include not only the Pan Am tragedy in Lockerbie , Scotland , but also a French UTA plane blown up over Africa . And not only is Qaddafi truly bad, but Libya is comparatively small, and his forces appear relatively weak (this remains to be proven on the ground).
Aside from these personality factors, there is the regional context. Preventing Qaddafi from rebuilding the wall of fear that fell in Tunisia and Egypt is essential if the “Arab spring” is not to be succeeded by a new winter of discontent. What is now done in the sky over Libya – sanctioned by international law and, unlike in Iraq in 2003, with the ambivalent political support of the Arab League – is fundamental if the Arab revolutionaries are to take a positive view of the West.
The West is not trying, as it did during the Crusades or the Imperialist conquests of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to impose its religion or values on the Arabs. Instead, the West is defending common values, such as freedom, respect for human life, and the rule of law. We have a duty to protect Arab lives and values, as Arabs themselves have requested.
France has a common history and geography with the countries on the southern Mediterranean shore. The duty to intervene – and the cost of indifference – is probably higher for France than for any other Western country.
Indeed, France has a very large immigrant population that originated in the Maghreb , and for which the “Arab spring” is vitally important and a source of fascination and pride. And today, with France taking the lead in an international effort to protect the Libyan people from their leader, they can feel simultaneously proud of being French and of their Arab roots. These positive identities constitute the best protection against the sirens of fundamentalist Islam.
Of course, an ideal scenario implies that the intervention “goes well,” and that it does not incite confusion or chaos in Libya or the wider region. France , together with Great Britain , and with the more distant support of the US , is undeniably risking much, for it is easier to start a war than it is to end one. But it is a worthwhile risk. The cost of non-intervention, of allowing Qaddafi to crush his own people, and of thus signaling to the world’s despots that a campaign of domestic terror is acceptable, is far more menacing.
Sarkozy has chosen the right course. In fact, he has chosen the only possible way forward.
Dominique Moisi is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.