France stakes reputation on conflicts in Libya, I.Coast
With its troops fighting on new fronts in Ivory Coast and Libya as well as in Afghanistan, France has put its international reputation on the line in conflicts whose outcome is far from certain.
Weakened at home where his personal popularity is at an all-time low, President Nicolas Sarkozy was the driving force behind foreign intervention in Libya, although he he has not yet addressed the French people to explain why.
"Avoiding a bloodbath in Benghazi", "Defending civilian populations": Paris has justified its role with humanitarian arguments, and got the United Nations to tag along in the form of Security Council resolutions targeting Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
Experts say that despite involvement in Afghanistan, France has the military means to cope with multiple fronts, at least in the short term thanks to targeted air strikes in Libya and the use of pre-positioned troops in Ivory Coast.
"Afghanistan is logically the most difficult terrain, with the mobilisation of both land and air forces," said Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research.
In both new conflicts, France is also not alone. Several countries are contributing to the bid in Libya to prevent Kadhafi's forces killing civilians or rebels, while 10,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed in Ivory Coast.
Also in both conflicts, France is at the vanguard: in Libya its air force is the most involved, in Ivory Coast its well-equipped troops are spearheading an offensive that could finally propel Gbagbo rival Alassane Ouattara to power.
And unlike the Afghan conflict, which in France as in other countries has become unpopular, military involvement in Libya appears to have almost unanimous public support.
But that support remains fragile, said one French diplomat: "Democracies don't like wars."
In Ivory Coast, "the balance of power is clearly in favour of Alassane Ouattara," said a French official who requested anonymity, suggesting the fighting will not last long.
"More than getting Alassane Ouattara in place, the most urgent thing in Ivory Coast will be Ivorian reconciliation," warned Pascal Boniface of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).
However, barring a surprise fall of the Kadhafi regime, the possibility of getting bogged down in the Libyan conflict is real after two weeks of air strikes failed to decisively alter the balance of power.
The potential pitfalls for France in both conflicts are many.
Paris must launch simultaneous diplomatic initiatives to ensure at least the semblance of a united international front, while on the operational front taking great care to avoid potentially disastrous collateral damage.
Sarkozy holds regular telephone conversations with Ouattara, whose forces have recently been accused of involvement in massacres, and has also dispatched a former ambassador to Benghazi, the stronghold of Libya's relatively untrained and ill-equipped rebels.
France has undeniably taken back the initiative after its slow reaction to revolts in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, and radically changed its image after former president Jacques Chirac's virulent opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
"France has scored some points," admitted IRIS's Boniface.
It remains to be seen what the consequences will be for France's position in the world. Once you become involved in a war "you get judged by the result," said Heisbourg.
© 2011 AFP