Is there a lonelier or more poorly understood warrior than Francois Hollande? Last week, as French troops prepared to intervene in the Central African Republic (CAR) to stem pervasive disorder, there was praise from abroad for the domestically unpopular French president. The Economist characterized Hollande as a “strident neocon” and “decisive war leader” whose willingness to send soldiers to Mali and the CAR this year has been in contrast to his “shaky” performance at home. Noting that France’s recent interventions have enjoyed widespread African support, the Guardian announced the emergence of a “Hollande doctrine” involving a “benign form of armed interventionism based on international authority and local consent.”
Do these analyses add up? It would be wrong to begrudge Hollande his dose of international praise. United Nations officials insist that if the French had not begun to deploy across the CAR, the country could have been on course for large-scale sectarian killings and perhaps even genocide. Similarly, if France had not barged into Mali to halt Islamist advances in January, radical groups might now be holding sway over large tracts of the Sahel.
But it is wrong to suggest that Hollande has been decisive or visionary in handling these crises. Paris has been dragged into the CAR against its initial instincts, just as it only chose to fight in Mali as a last resort. Hollande, like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy before him, had wanted to curtail France’s African commitments to concentrate scarce military and financial assets elsewhere. By this logic, the fact that he has ended up doubling down on Africa, just as Sarkozy ended up fighting in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, equals a strategic failure. And as Paris has waded deeper into these battles, it has encountered further strategic frictions with its European allies, the U.S. and even the African states that welcome its actions.