CAUGHT napping by the “jasmine revolution” in Tunisia, France’s government did what the French do best: worked up a theory to explain itself. France was not only a step behind events but, unlike America, failed to condemn the regime’s violent response to protesters. And days before the flight of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, Michèle Alliot-Marie, the foreign minister, clumsily offered the “savoir faire” of France’s security forces to its former protectorate, albeit to avoid endangering protesters’ lives.
The doctrine that explains all this, the government said this week, is “the principle of non-interference”. For decades after its African possessions won independence, French officials, oil bosses and soldiers meddled behind the scenes, propping up many unsavoury leaders along the way. A web of contacts known as françafrique linked African leaders and petrodollars to French political parties and presidents from left and right. When he was elected president in 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy promised to sweep away these “networks of a bygone era” and to replace them with grown-up, bilateral ties free of post-colonial paternalism.
In some ways France has turned a page. Mr Sarkozy has opened a new military base in Abu Dhabi, where France has no colonial link, and handed back to Senegal one of three permanent bases in Africa (those in Gabon and Djibouti remain). He has updated opaque bilateral defence accords. He has courted leaders outside the French-speaking backyard. Since Osama bin Laden declared France a terrorist target after its ban on the burqa, Mr Sarkozy has focused particularly on counter-terrorism.
But does France’s new approach really amount to non-interference? “France used to intervene in order to exist internationally,” comments Dominique Moïsi, of the French Institute of International Relations. “We are witnessing a reversal of this attitude, but it is taking place in a chaotic, if not contradictory, manner.” As Mr Sarkozy conceded this week, the principle of non-interference sometimes clashes with another underlying principle that he claims for French diplomacy, which is to support freedom and democracy.
Consider recent events in three former French territories: Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia and Niger. When Laurent Gbagbo refused to resign as president of Côte d’Ivoire after losing an election, Mr Sarkozy ordered him to go or to face sanctions. This was in tune with the international consensus, but it was nonetheless perceived as imperious. “Côte d’Ivoire is not a sub-prefecture of France,” snapped one Ivorian minister. Mr Sarkozy’s ultimatum has now expired, with no effect. France has hundreds of soldiers in the country in a peacekeeping operation, who were sucked into a bloody stand-off a few years ago. Nobody wants that again. But would France stand on the sidelines were the African Union, now mediating in the stalemate, to urge the use of force to dislodge Mr Gbagbo?
If the French are unavoidably involved in Côte d’Ivoire, they have been denounced at home for doing nothing in Tunisia. “Scandalous”, “shameful” and “ignoble” were some of the more printable adjectives lobbed this week by the opposition Socialist Party (which, when in power, was just as cosy with the Ben Ali regime). The French blogosphere has dug up evidence of Franco-Tunisian complicity for Facebook’s “Ben Ali Wall of Shame”. When Mr Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, went on a state visit in 2008, the president announced that Tunisia’s “space of freedom is progressing.”
In reality, France was no more supportive of the Tunisian regime than many others who saw it as a bulwark against Islamism. But its ties to the country are more complex than most. At least 600,000 Tunisians live in France, including many political exiles. France is Tunisia’s biggest trading partner. Several French politicians were born or have homes in Tunisia. This mesh of intimate ties also explains France’s confusion. Having been slow to speak out, it was quick to refuse the fleeing president sanctuary on French soil.
A third, quite different, case concerns the recent kidnapping and execution of two young Frenchmen snatched in a restaurant in Niger by gunmen acting for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As Niger’s army chased the kidnappers across the desert, French special forces were called in and carried out an assault by helicopter. Several AQIM gunmen were killed in the shoot-out. Elsewhere in the Sahel, five French hostages are still being held. AQIM killed another last year.
Plainly, fighting terrorism or hostage-taking in the Sahel is a different sort of intervention. But it also reflects how France is trying to redefine its role in Africa. Last year Mr Sarkozy said it was “not a strategy” for France to pay ransoms to kidnappers in the Sahel, or even to negotiate with them. Instead, it would aid any country requesting help to hunt down AQIM. “This was a major strategic change,” says François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research. The special forces that France has stationed in the Sahel explain how the Niger kidnappers were tracked so rapidly. In short, France may want neat principles for its new diplomacy in Africa; but the reality is a lot more blurred.