French researcher: Hollande could have been much ‘more proactive’

François Hollande [Parti Socialiste/Flickr]

A failure on domestic issues, but a success on security. Or at least more so. As the second and final round of the French presidential elections is about to take place, Christian Lequesne spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia about François Hollande’s legacy.

Christian Lequesne is a professor at Sciences Po. He is the former Director of the Centre for International Research (CERI) in Paris and of the French Centre of Research in Social Sciences (CEFRES) in Prague. In January 2017, he authored Ethnographie du Quai d’Orsay. Les pratiques des diplomates français (CNRS Editions 2017).

Lequesne was interviewed by’s Pavol Szalai.

The presidency of François Hollande is often regarded as a failure on domestic policies. Was it a failure also in foreign policy?

In European integration, he did crisis management, but not more. He took power in 2012, when we had a lot of crises. He came in after the big financial crisis. We also had the refugee crisis and then there was Brexit. He tried to find compromises. But he could have been much more proactive, especially with Germany. But it was difficult because his Socialist Party was split on the European issue.

What about the fight against terrorism? He intervened successfully in Mali.

On terrorism, he managed well. He probably gained some legitimacy at home thanks to this issue, because he was a president trying to secure the country. Mali was a courageous decision, which he took in two days, and it was important for the stability of Sahel.

In terms of using military means, he was in the continuity of Sarkozy. Hollande did not hesitate to engage French troops in operations abroad. In August 2013, when we had the first information about the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, he wanted to intervene in Syria. But the Americans and the Brits were not in favour of intervening. He had to back down and he had big regrets about it.

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Many in Central Europe appreciated Hollande’s decision not to sell two helicopter carriers Mistral to Russia. Was that a courageous decision?

He hesitated until the end between two arguments. One was the financial interest to sell the ships. But he also realised that the liberal normative agenda, especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea, is something that matters for public opinion. Hollande decided not to go against the transnational public opinion. But the two ships were afterwards sold to Egypt and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is not the greatest democrat in the world.

Does the Syrian case show how much the French foreign and defence policy is dependent on the United States?

I would not use the word ‘dependence’. We have been very much accustomed to the idea that the French go against the Americans. This is the Gaullist legacy and it was partly true until Jacques Chirac (1995-2007). According to the old paradigm, when Americans decided something, France tried to proceed differently even if compromises were taken all the time with the US. Consider the French intervention with NATO troops against Slobodan Milošević in Serbia.

Since Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), the general mindset – what I call the ‘mental map’ – has changed. Sarkozy decided to return to NATO’s integrated command. And there is a continuity from Sarkozy to Hollande. Their idea was that we did not have to play all the time the card of French exceptionalism and we should play more the card of Western solidarity. This is the way the new generation of French diplomats, politicians but also intellectuals is thinking. They are probably more sensitive to values, which also means they rediscovered the West long after the end of the Cold War.

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In your book, you call this thinking ‘occidentalist’. Was Hollande’s Presidency occidentalist?

Yes, in the sense that he does not think the French exceptionalism should be the main engine of the foreign policy. He is much more pragmatic. We also have to take into account the decrease of anti-Americanism in the French society, especially among the elites. Again, it does not mean France is following the US all the time in security terms. But France has no problem in principle with the US. It is a much more normalised situation.

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