March 12, 2003

March 12, 2003 | WebMemo on Europe

French Act Unilaterally When Their Interests are at Stake

It's easy to make fun of the French. Here is a medium-sized power that struts and grandstands on the international stage, alone seeing itself as a great power when the truth is obvious to everyone else. France, at least since Von Manstein pierced the Maginot Line in 1940, isn't what it used to be.

However, laughing at France's grandiose pretensions misses a far more important point; France is a world-beater at using international institutions to constrain others (notably the United States) while ignoring them when its own national interests are in play. Rather than laughing French opposition off, its hypocrisy actually obscures its skillful ability to make others think it plays by international standards when in reality it uses or ignores multilateral institutions to suit its own purposes.

This is nowhere more true than in francophone Africa, an area of 14 nations and some 200 million people. Since launching an assault on Gabon in 1964, Paris has militarily intervened on the African continent an average of once a year -- 35 times in 34 years.

Three cases bear this out. In the late 1970s France supported Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the leader of the Central African Empire, who turned out to be a cannibal. Bokassa's CAE, you see, was a resource-rich country that fell under France's neo-colonialist sway. In fact, French President Valery Giscard-d'Estaing invited Bokassa to his personal chateau as a sign of the favor in which the human rights violator was held in Paris. Giscard had in return accepted diamonds from the African dictator. International law and human rights issues alike were not the driving force behind the French position; no serious French leader called for an international coalition to drive the evil Bokassa from power; instead a unilateral desire to pursue France's national interests determined policy in Paris.

In Rwanda in 1994, President Mitterrand sent in 2,500 French troops for "humanitarian purposes" to protect the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government. The French-armed Hutu regime had massacred at least 700,000 to 1 million Tutsis and was facing reprisals from the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). In short, the French, with no U.N. mandate whatsoever, protected the killers responsible for the most brutal genocide Africa would suffer in the 20th century.

Why? Paris disingenuously observed it was merely honoring its 1975 military assistance pact with the Rwandan government, one of numerous French client regimes in the continent. But as George Melloan wrote in the Journal at that time, "that the leaders of some of the francophone nations were odious didn't trouble French politicians very much so long as relations were well-oiled with trade, arms purchases, and, not least, political gifts to Paris."

In the Ivory Coast, an insurrection against the ruling government began in September 2002. France's immediate response was not to convene an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council; rather, it sent 2,500 troops to bolster the government, as it was a pro-French satellite. France then took it upon itself to organize peace talks between the warring parties that it personally facilitated rather than involving the U.N. or the international community in such an effort. It was only after the fact -- last month, in fact -- that France asked the U.N. to approve its unilateral policy. Once again French policy initiatives in Africa make clear that it regards at least the francophone region on the continent as its own personal preserve; international institutions need not apply.

While strutting like a well-groomed peacock on the UN stage, Dominique de Villepin lectures the world on the high-minded values of multilateralism. It is shallow rhetoric infused with rank hypocrisy. France, a rapidly declining force on the international stage, is clinging to its delusions of grandeur, in a desperate attempt to rein in U.S. power. It is important to look at French maneuvers in Africa for what they are - a straightforward attempt to advance their national interests regardless of the wishes of any multilateral institution.

John Hulsman is a research fellow and Nile Gardiner is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John Hulsman Senior Research Fellow

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom