Hollande's First Steps

On Tuesday, November 13, Francois Hollande, president of France, faced the press at the Elysee Palace for his first "news conference", at which he tried to turn the momentum of the growingly unpopular first months of his mandate. Hollande has come under severe criticism by the press, giving birth to term “Hollande-bashing”; the Economist has gone so far as to call France “Europe’s time bomb” in this week’s cover story. This “news conference” was therefore particularly important because it was the opportunity for Hollande to show that the (sinking) ship has a captain and that he knew where it was heading. Though the main concern of much of the observers was understandably the alarming economy, Hollande made some very important foreign policy announcements and managed to promote his authority and stature as a statesman.

On the subject of Mali, the country that Mitt Romney surprisingly singled out as a major subject of concern during the presidential debate, Hollande remained prudent. France is Mali’s former colonist but still has many vested interests in the region, and it is obviously no simple task to maintain the crucial balance between the two identities of former imperial authority and new economic partner.  With the northern half of the country having been captured by Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels, and the president overthrown in March, the situation is extremely unstable. Especially, there are fears that the north of Mali (a region bigger than France itself) may become a terrorist hub, under the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM). France has repeatedly called for an internationally backed but African-led intervention in the region, provoking the wrath of AQIM, which threatened to kill four French hostages it captured in 2010.

The situation being particularly complex, Hollande stated that France would not intervene militarily in Mali by itself, which has prompted some of his critics to say he encourages a “declinist“ view of France. In reality, such an intervention would be foolish and Hollande has instead pushed for offering full support to Malian troops and logistical support for an African intervention, perhaps through the African Union. This is a particularly important move, coupled with his proclamation that “Francafrique” was dead, it signals a definite movement away from trying to directly influence events in West Africa. It shows that France acknowledges it declining status as a political actor on the international scene but honors its duties as to ensure the geopolitical stability of a crucial region it once controlled. Stability, in order to be lasting and sustainable, must be achieved by Africans alone and thus it is important that Western countries encourage and orchestrate a solution for Mali without intervening themselves.

Nevertheless, France does seem ready to step up for another one of its former colonies in a more active way. Hollande made a groundbreaking announcement in that he became the first Western head of state to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the politically legitimate force in Syria. This will be an extremely important step in solving the Syrian situation if and only if Hollande’s declaration influences other leaders in making the same pledge. Barack Obama has already declared that they were a "legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people," but has not officially recognized it as the legitimate Syrian government, because of the more radical religious individuals associated with the group. There is an evident parallelism between the leadership position assumed by Hollande and that taken by former President Sarkozy in the early days of the Libyan uprising, with observers already pointing out his willingness to match his predecessor’s most impressive foreign policy achievement. Hollande’s move is a bolder but also riskier one: the Syrian National Coalition is a more disorganized group than the Libyan one and there are fears of Islamic influences among the rebels. The newly chosen leader of the rebels, Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate cleric, heads a committee of 63 members, of which roughly a third are members of the previous ruling organ, the Syrian National Council (which failed to become a real potentially alternative government). The United States is particularly reticent to lend military material to the rebels for fear of it falling in hostile hands.

The leadership of the resistance has therefore fallen to Qatar, who reunited the main members of the opposition in Doha, where the Syrian National Coalition was formed; some people argue that Qatar’s influence in French political circles may have played a role in Hollande’s proactive attitude. However, through his declaration, it seems Hollande is trying to push for his fellow NATO leaders to follow his lead and engage in a process that would mirror the one that lead to Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall. Ensuring a no-fly zone over Syria would be a good way to start empowering the rebels. Though it may be a risky gamble, with much uncertainty lying ahead, it is very courageous of Hollande to try and force the hands of his fellow heads of state and attempt to put an end to this massacre.