PARIS – In 2003, France, under President Jacques Chirac, took the lead in opposing America’s planned invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s flamboyant speech at the United Nations encapsulated the “spirit of resistance” against what proved to be a dangerous adventure. In 2011, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has again taken a highly visible stand on a question of war and peace, except that now the French, together with the British, are leading the fight to protect Libya’s people from their erratic, brutal leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Why does France seem to crave such prominence? In the eyes of the French, France’s international status remains a key ingredient in forming their own national identity. The way we French are perceived by others affects how we perceive ourselves, and nothing is more troubling for us than to be perceived with indifference or, worse, not to be noticed at all.
Suddenly, with the Libya issue, we can tell ourselves that we are catching up with Germany, whose pusillanimity is striking; we are showing the way to the United States; and the French (and British) flags are deployed in the streets of “liberated” Libya, together with that country’s own new flag. And, just as suddenly, the French, according to early polls, are proud again to be French.
France’s seemingly natural propensity to intervene is reinforced in this case by three key factors: Sarkozy, Qaddafi, and the context of a wider Arab revolution.