The French military took the lead in two ongoing regime-change operations on the African continent on Monday. First, France — supported by the British and other NATO allies — is set to take over from the United States the bulk of airstrike missions in Libya, according to NATO officials.
Second, French forces in Ivory Coast, operating under a U.N. mandate, began using helicopter gunships to directly target heavy weapons and armored vehicles controlled by incumbent Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. This came as French forces assumed U.N. control of Abidjan’s international airport and mounted patrols in some neighborhoods of Gbagbo’s Abidjan stronghold as troops loyal to Western-supported Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara amassed for a final strike.
For all intents and purposes, France is now the leading Western nation in both conflicts. Until now, France had stayed clear of directly intervening against Gbagbo in Ivory Coast and had only rhetorically led the charge in Libya, while the United States took the initial military lead on operations. But on Monday, Paris was effectively in charge of military operations in both African countries, with French troops in Ivory Coast ensuring the Gbagbo regime has no strategic capability to withstand Ouattara’s forces, and with the French air force in Libya now expected to conduct the bulk of operations.
“France wants to give Germany notice that for Europe to be a true global player, it needs to have military and diplomatic capability.”
Neither intervention is officially about regime change. However, French officials have repeatedly stressed that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is no longer acceptable as a ruler of the North African state and have been the most aggressive in seeking his ouster. Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, helping Ouattara’s forces with air support at the critical moment before Ouattara’s troops mount their final assault on Abidjan is regime change in all but the official U.N. statements, which on Monday were denying the international body was intervening in the conflict and choosing sides.
In fact, a Monday phone conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Ouattara suggests that Paris is not only helping, but is directly coordinating at the highest levels with Gbagbo’s rival.
Being involved in two regime-change operations at the same time is politically costly. Regime change is not easy and failure to perform one cleanly can backfire quickly at home, as U.S. President George W. Bush found out during the midterm elections in 2006. The problem is that failure can come in different forms, from failing to remove the regime to failing to deal with an insurgency that may follow.
Paris’ sudden appetite for risk therefore needs to be explained.
Why would Sarkozy initiate two military operations on two sides of a very large continent when failure in at least one — Libya — seems far more plausible at this point than success?
The simple answer is that Sarkozy is so unpopular — according to some polls, he wouldn’t even make it out of the first round of presidential elections were they held today — that he is using the two military operations to rally support ahead of the 2012 elections. He has had some success in the past using international activity to boost popularity. His own party is quietly contemplating running a different candidate — perhaps Sarkozy’s prime minister or foreign minister — in 2012, and a potential new center-right candidate may emerge from outside his core party establishment. While it cannot be assured that the French public will give greater support to Sarkozy because of current international actions, Sarkozy may not have much to lose and risks are therefore acceptable.
But whether or not it is in Sarkozy’s political interest to push for military involvement abroad does not sufficiently account for the fact that France is in fact capable of doing it. It is noteworthy that the option is available to him.
It is also notable that France has the military capacity to perform military intervention in two African locations while its troops are also committed to Afghanistan. There certainly are mitigating factors in play for France: Libya is just across the Mediterranean and French military assets are pre-positioned near Ivory Coast. But the operations still illustrate a level of French expeditionary capability that is unmatched in Europe.
It is significant that very little domestic public opposition has been voiced regarding French participation in either military mission, which stands in stark contrast to French public rancor over U.S. intervention in Iraq and even over the international, but U.S.-led, intervention in Afghanistan. In addition, France is operating in both Libya and Ivory Coast without recourse to its close relationship with Germany. The Berlin-Paris axis has cooperated closely for the past 12 months on every eurozone economic crisis issue, with the two huddling before announcing decisions to the rest of the EU member states — much to the chagrin of the rest of the bloc. Paris has been largely reduced to a junior partner in that partnership, and it has strayed very little from Berlin’s diktats. Paris has also stood very close to both London and Washington on the two interventions, and has in fact led the West’s response on both, in many ways dragging the uncertain United States into Libya.
These are not conclusions, just aspects of French involvement that we feel are notable. France is the most capable European country when it comes to expeditionary capacity. Its public — regardless of what the U.S. public may believe due to the French opposition to the Iraq war — does not shy away from war as a general rule. (Its opposition to the Iraq War was based more on anti-Americanism than on aversion to conflict.) And France has eschewed coordination with Germany when it comes to global affairs, unlike how it has approached the eurozone crisis.
The interventions therefore play more than just a domestic political role. France wants to give Germany notice that for Europe to be a true global player, it needs to have military and diplomatic capability. It therefore takes both German economic and French military prowess to make Europe matter. As long as France is proving its worth on issues of absolutely no concern for Germany — Libya and Ivory Coast — the costs of sending the message are low. Problems could arise, however, when Paris and Berlin have a clash of perspectives. And that clash might well come the day Paris stands with its Atlanticist allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, over Berlin’s interests. If we were going to guess where this might happen, we’d say somewhere east of the Oder …
This report republished with permission of Stratfor, www.stratfor.com