France is now America’s preferred partner in Africa and the Sahel

Dans une Europe de plus en plus réticente à user de la force, la France apparait comme la meilleure alliée des Etats-Unis, écrit Camille Grand, directeur de la Fondation pour la recherche scientifique à Paris, dans un commentaire publié par l’institut de Chatham House.

After centuries of wars and power politics, Europeans now seems more reluctant than ever to use force or to pay a reasonable price for their defence. 

Under fiscal constraints, defence spending is declining almost everywhere, and European public opinion shows no appetite for military commitments after two decades of engagement in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most Europeans have been resisting pressure from America to take a bigger share of the security burden including the management of crises in their immediate neighbourhood. They also view the US focus on Asia with anxiety as it signals a declining American willingness to spend money and troops to manage the remaining challenges to European security. 

Altogether, with declining military capabilities still mostly composed of legacy forces dedicated to territorial defence and with most leaders and their public opinion more reluctant than ever to use force or deploy abroad, Europe seems to havebecome the coalition of the unable and the unwilling.

The 2013 Transatlantic Trends report by the German Marshall Fund of the United States gives an astonishing figure of only 31 percent Europeans agreeing that ‘war was sometimes necessary to obtain justice’ (68 per cent of Americans agree). The shared reluctance to consider the military option to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria confirms and deepens a tendency already clear at the time of the Libya campaign in 2011, which sees fewer and fewer countries ready and willing to take military risks.

In this environment, France appears – with a handful of others such as Denmark, Norway or Belgium and of course Britain – as an exception, a ‘carnivore in a Europe of vegetarians’ to reverse Gideon Rachman’s comments about Germany in the Financial Times. After only 18 months in office, President François Hollande has already launched a successful high-risk operation in Mali and expressed readiness to strike Syria without a UN mandate in an ad hoc coalition, demonstrating that Sarkozy was not a trigger-happy exception and suggesting that an interventionist foreign and military policy is likely to last in spite of some decline in public support. 

In spite of severe budgetary constraints, France is not only doing its best to preserve its defence budget (€31 billion a year) and a broad spectrum of military assets ranging from nuclear deterrence to special forces, and including an aircraft carrier group, national intelligence tools and long-range strike capabilities. It also tends to use them to address crises abroad, even if this means going it alone. Existing capability gaps such as drones, and the replacement of ageing strategic airlift or air-to-air refuelling platforms, are given priority in procurement. 

In the past five years, on top of significant contributions to NATO, EU or UN operations in the Balkans, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya and off the coast of Somalia, French forces have been engaged in combat or crisis prevention in Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Chad, and Mali, accepting risks and casualties with a robust support of political elites and public opinion. 
It also maintains a forward presence in the Indian Ocean, and to a lesser extent, the South Pacific, and a network of bases in French overseas territories – Senegal, Gabon and Djibouti in Africa and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. It also has strong military ties with partners far beyond EU and NATO. The high quality of the French armed forces allows France to punch above its weight and to deliver decisive results with limited means (only 5,000 soldiers were deployed in Mali at the peak of the operation). 

This has turned France into a partner of choice for the US in the management of vast areas such as the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. While not replacing the British special relationship, which is anchored in unique intelligence and nuclear ties, this has rebalanced the strategic triangle between Washington, London and Paris – the P3. It is a paradox that a more Atlanticist France has succeeded in achieving de Gaulle’s strategic ambition of a more balanced trilateral security relationship with the US and Britain. 

France does not, however, aspire to replace Britain as America’s deputy sheriff. As the 2010 Anglo-French Lancaster House treaties suggest, Paris sees a strong and committed Britain as a strategic asset. Moreover, most French decision-makers would argue that Britain remains the most reliable partner for defence matters in Europe.

They hope that the House of Commons vote on Syria was a one-off, poorly handled mistake rather than a signal for long-term British retrenchment from world affairs, which would leave France lonely in trying to prevent Europe from falling into strategic irrelevance. 

This bilateral Franco-British relationship is all the more vital when the US under an Obama administration reluctant to engage in another war, and constrained by domestic politics and budget cuts, appears as a hesitant partner more and more unwilling to lead unless US strategic interest are at stake.

Given the low likelihood in the short term of seeing the EU move from its current policy of engaging mostly in low-intensity, civilian-military nation-building missions and avoiding risks associated with high-intensity warfare, France is likely to work more and more in the framework of ad hoc coalitions bringing together the able and the willing under American leadership for the most demanding contingencies (in the Middle East), or without US direct involvement (mostly in Africa).

In an unstable security environment, this more interventionist and Atlanticist France sees with concern the combination of a US leadership often lacking resolve, hesitant, tempted by strategic retrenchment, and of many fellow Europeans turning a blind eye to the 21st century security challenges and refusing to think strategically. Fully aware that French ability to act on its own or take the lead only applies to small-to-medium contingencies mostly located in Africa, security elites in Paris are concerned at the prospect of a world where the Western countries no longer share a common objective of preserving – and sometimes enforcing – peace and security.