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French Party Positions on Humanitarian Intervention

Brian C. Rathbun

The recent transatlantic controversy over whether and how to disarm Saddam Hussein seems to have confirmed long-held views, particularly in the United States, about the foreign policy approaches and interests of the three major European powers. In this view, all three remain on the same paths they took following the Second World War, making it possible to speak of a single cross-party British, French or German national position. According to these stereotypes, Britain is consistently loyal to the U.S.; Germany is instinctively pacifist; and France, unfailingly obstructionist. These approaches are often said to transcend partisan divides, so that the foreign policy views of a French Socialist have more in common with a member of the center-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) than a German Social Democrat.

Even to the extent that any such consensus prevailed in these countries during the Cold War (and there were certainly periods of fierce partisan debate), it has largely dissipated since the fall of the Soviet Union. For example, all three countries showed marked internal divisions along partisan lines about whether and how to use force to restore peace in the Balkans. Even in France, which at first glance appears to present the clearest example of a cross-party consensus on foreign policy, partisan divides are often severe. Only with a better grasp of what motivates different sections of the political spectrum in these countries can the U.S. develop effective strategies for gathering support within European countries for the policies it wants to pursue. France poses particular problems of comprehension for the U.S. policymaker due to the unique ideological landscape of its party system. These idiosyncrasies can be seen in sharper relief when France is compared to its European neighbors.

France’s Unique Right

The left and right in France take pride in what they claim to be to an overarching agreement on the basic principles of their country’s role in international affairs. All French parties, it is often maintained, are Gaullist, in the sense that they seek to maintain France’s traditional standing as an independent power with a unique voice and influence in international affairs. On the issue of the Balkans, the French stood out from their European neighbors in that their main center-right party, then known as the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), was more committed than its counterparts in the U.S., Britain and Germany to intervene with force if necessary in the Balkans. Only the far right National Front argued explicitly that these operations were not in the national interest. Following its crushing defeat of the Socialists in the 1993 parliamentary elections, the RPR “co-habitated” with a socialist President, François Mitterrand. In contrast to the firm control over foreign and defense policy President Mitterrand exercised under a Socialist majority, the new RPR government shared in decision-making over foreign affairs, and its influence grew as Mitterrand’s health deteriorated after 1993. Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé pushed through two of the most important initiatives of the Bosnian War. He was responsible for the creation of the safe areas in 1993, and with the U.S. capitalized on the outrage following the 1994 Bosnian Serb bombing of the Sarajevo marketplace to force through a NATO ultimatum that eventually broke the siege of Sarajevo.

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