From the Sahel to Saudi, Beirut to Baghdad, there have been two lasting footprints in the sand. Both heavily invested and persistent in their staying power. The first belongs to a brusque, blue collar Pittsburgh Steel tough boot, unapologetically made in the USA. The other traced by a more delicate and finicky Chanel pump, more inclined toward backroom seduction than the smash and brash of the former. Slightly unpleasant and aloof manner, but highly skillful in the role of interlocutor.
In the aftermath of the Suez debacle, the French stayed behind spending much of the next fifty years trying to keep a foot in whatever door was still left open to them. Fifty years of trying to maintain a meaningful presence meant that at times Paris didn’t much care if your name was Sadaam or Sa’ad Hariri. As long as you had something of value to them, the Elysee Palace was a place you could do business. Because of the poor choices and questionable ethos of years past, there are certain attitudes toward France which have become entrenched in our expectations of them, but, if recent history is any indicator, this once unreliable partner could serve as a dependable navigator through the gathering storm.
While President Bush would not have handed Jacques Chirac a glass of water had he been choking on a croque monsieur, he held a great affinity and enjoyed an exceptional working relationship with Chirac’s successor, Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy prioritized France’s relationship with America even though it was unpopular, and loudly contested on les Grands Boulevards. Together they fought in Afghanistan, stood up to the Russians and the Chinese, and led the chorus calling for crippling sanctions against Iran. Obama in his turn, received equal camaraderie from the French President, standing shoulder to shoulder (well more like head above shoulder) with Sarkozy when he needed him to stare down the Taliban, the Mullah’s, and their common nudge par exellence, Bibi Netanyahu
Sarkozy tried to make up for past European inaction, much to the joy of the Americans, by ordering his armed forces to spearhead the bombing campaign in Libya along with a coalition of Arab and Western nations, (setting a precedent which would be useful to the Americans should they act on Iran or Syria) which resulted in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. This put Sarkozy in a class of his own. But when the applause died down, the hero of Benghazi was abruptly voted out of office. Francois Hollande was elected President on a platform promising that he would be the anti-Sarkozy on just about everything. Not a minutes’ worth of governance and zero world experience to his resume, his election should have meant that France’s moment in the Levantine sun was over.
The first few months in office saw a him attend NATO, G8 and G20 summits, where he took part in both scheduled, and sideline meetings, which have a heavy history of shaping foreign policy decisions by those huddled together whispering in the corridors. From what we can see now a few months later, a decision was made to keep France’s channels, both discreet and overt, operational. Hollande has been quietly building on Sarkozy’s successes, and has been using his good offices to do some troubleshooting of his own. Since taking office in May he has twice hosted PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, (who thought Sarkozy was markedly too pro-Israeli,) once at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to try and kick-start the peace process, and once to probe Abbas on whether opening an investigation into Arafat’s death was in fact a good, and necessary idea. Even Avigdor Lieberman has come calling reports have said, in the hope of being put in touch with France’s moderate contacts emerging out of the Arab Spring in order to broaden Israel’s network in the Muslim World.
But Hollande, like his predecessor did, used the debate over intervention to stop a murderous dictator with whom his country once enjoyed close ties, from cleansing his country of opposition. An opportunity has emerged, and the new President, by all indications, wants to take it. He has been very clear in demanding that Assad leave office. After all, Paris is home to many prominent Syrian dissidents, which means he should be gracious as their host by trying to return them home. As the violence worsens and the death toll climbs alarmingly higher, Hollande is raising the stakes by being the first head of state publicly endorsing, and offering to join a no-fly-zone, if a resolution authorizing one could be cobbled together. Most dramatically, Hollande this week asked the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government which he would immediately recognize as the legitimate ruling body of Syria, giving the opposition a tremendous opportunity to lever Assad out. All this should not be read as cheap sentimentality or pompousness on the part of the French. Fight that urge. Instead, look at it as an effort to close ranks and press on the international community that time for action in defense of Syria’s population has come. If the Americans can’t be as firm as they would like to be because of the Russians or the Chinese, Hollande is offering himself to be the Attack Dog of the United States, rather than the Poodle of the United Nations. The members of the Security Council know that diplomacy will only work if Assad is on his last legs, and the French want to push him there.
Patton may have been queasy about the French, preferring a German division in front of him than a French one behind him, but America’s current Commander in Chief seems comfortable enough with the prospect of having France help lead the way over the skies of Syria.