Of course French interventions abroad have not usually gone well. Napoleon came to grief in Egypt. Now Sarkozy, his diminutive successor, is following in his path. He seems to be going bonkers. What will follow the intervention in the Ivory Coast? Is France trying to reconstitute its former empire? ~Jacob Heilbrunn

I enjoyed Noah Millman’s argument that the international politics of humanitarian intervention resembles medieval Icelandic justice: there is no central authority to enforce rules, so outlaw states are exposed to attack with impunity. As far as collective security arrangements are concerned, I think this makes sense. It doesn’t work quite as well for humanitarian interventions. The main cases of humanitarian intervention from Kosovo until now don’t involve states that are acting as international outlaws. As far as Libya’s neighbors and the West are concerned, Libya’s worst days of promoting rebellions, invading, intervening on behalf of other dictators, and sponsoring terrorism are in the past. Gaddafi wields outsized and corrupting influence on many African governments, but he is hardly unique in that kind of behavior. Likewise, Milosevic’s crackdown in 1998-99 on the KLA was an entirely internal matter. As a matter of international security, neither of these states was a serious outlaw at the time that they were targeted for sustained attack. This isn’t a case of exposing international outlaws to punishment, but one of targeting isolated former outlaws on account of bad behavior in the confines of their territory.

Let me turn to Heilbrunn’s question. One could say that Sarkozy is reconstituting a version of the French colonial empire in Africa, except that this was done a long time before Sarkozy ever came to power. This has changed some since the Rwanda genocide in 1994, but the French military presence in a few African states continues. The French were already in Ivory Coast since the 2002 civil war there, and they still regularly intervene in Francophone Africa when it suits them:

French military interventions into African hot spots, especially in francophone countries, are backed by military agreements signed with the former French colonies before independence. But critics of French interventions in Africa have argued that the military alliances were not really alliance but a means for France to remain in control in their former colonies. They argue, for example, that French interventions have not maintained a consistent policy but act at random depending on French interest and not the interest of the African country.

The CFR report on French military presence in Africa confirms this:

As France’s former colonies in Africa gained their independence in the early 1960s, most signed bilateral treaties pledging various degrees of military cooperation and support. Most of these treaties exist today, though some remain state secrets.

Johann Hari wrote a devastating report on French misadventures in the Central African Republic four years ago that is worth reading in light of Sarkozy’s eagerness to intervene in Libya:

They explain in this blackness that the French-backed troops began firing and the French military began bombing in March for one reason: the desperate locals had begun to rise up against President Bozize, because he had done nothing for them. People here were tired of the fact that “there are no schools, no hospitals, and no roads”. “We are completely isolated,” they explain. “When it rains, we are cut off from the world because the roads turn to mud. We have nothing. All the rebels were asking was for government help.” As I stumble around Birao, I hear this every time: the rebels were simply begging for government help for the hungry, abandoned people. Even the bemused French soldiers and the Bozize lackeys sent to the area admit this privately. Yet the French response was with bombs against the rebels’ pick-up points.

As the CFR report explains, French support has been major factor in keeping Bozize in power. Bozize was just recently sworn in for his second term as president after an election result that the opposition refused to recognize.

Hari described the rise of Bozize to power:

From being a poor man, Bozize suddenly had the money to run a huge presidential campaign. He ran, and he lost. So in October 2002, he paid for a vast private mercenary army (you might wonder – with whose money?) to invade the CAR from neighbouring Chad, depose the sitting president and install himself as the supreme ruler. Since then, he has “won” a disputed election he arranged for himself and bathed in French approbation.

“France sees the CAR as a colony,” Maka says. “The presidents are selected by France, not elected by the people. The presidents do not serve the interests of this country; they serve the interests of France.” He lists the French corporations who use the CAR as a base to grab Central African resources. This French behaviour is, he reasons, at the root of the wars currently ripping apart the north of the country. Whoever becomes president knows his power flows down from Paris, not up from the people – so he has no incentive to build support by developing the country. Rebellions become inevitable, and the president crushes them with the house-burnings and French bombs I learned about in Birao.

Update: The person who wrote this AP report has to be kidding:

Analysts say the extraordinary turnaround may be rooted in a revival by President Nicolas Sarkozy of traditional French notions of high-minded interventionism [bold mine-DL], as well as an attempt by the French leader to ease Europe away from its longtime dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.

I know that Judah Grunstein has argued that Sarkozy’s Libya position shows that he has re-discovered his “inner idealist,” but Sarkozy’s purported idealism and his appointment of Kouchner to be foreign minister in the past can be taken as meaningful only if we agree that there were no significant “traditional notions of high-minded interventionism” as far as French foreign policy was concerned. My point here isn’t to quarrel over whether French foreign policy should be more “high-minded” (whatever that might mean), but to challenge very strongly the idea that the sort of intervention Sarkozy and Kouchner found so appealing has much to do with French foreign policy tradition. Of course, in light of what France has been doing in the Central African Republic (see above), it is hard to take seriously any of Sarkozy’s campaign rhetoric of abandoning “Francafrique.” As Elizabeth Dickinson pointed out this past December, Francafrique is still alive and well under Sarkozy:

What happened? In short, the embassy analysis concludes, Sarkozy annoyed African leaders with his rhetoric, enraged them with his clamp-down on immigration policy, and then proved that he wasn’t terribly serious about actually abandoning Francafrique with his guestures to big man African leaders.