[ Approach ][ Capabilities ][ Staff ][ Clients ][ Press ][ Library ][ Contact ]  

(click here to return to the table of contents)

French Foreign Policy: A Perspective from History

By Andrew Novo

Maybe it’s something in the wine from Bordeaux. Maybe it’s something in the Roquefort cheese. Maybe it’s a desire to imitate the Scottish salmon that generations of French rulers after William the Conqueror were unable to acquire. Whatever it is, historically, France seems committed to swimming against the current of foreign policy, opposing the world’s most powerful state, and pushing itself forward as the champion of unlikely causes. At face value, it might be expected that France, one of the most respected and long-lived democracies in the world, would support the American led campaign to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent him from supporting terrorists, and remove him from power. After all, France is, and has been for two-hundred years, an important American ally. In this case, however, France and the United States do not see eye to eye. In fact, France has aligned itself squarely against the United States, Britain, Spain, Italy, and almost all of Eastern Europe, and shoulder to shoulder with Germany and Russia. Now, it is no surprise that Germany and Russia should oppose American policy, but France’s opposition is troubling and bears some explanation.

There’s no doubt that every nation acts almost exclusively out of self-interest in international affairs. France, however, has taken this principle to new levels of contrarian action that betray her position in the world. Yet, the stalwart opposition -- so much more resolute than that against Germany during twenty-seven days in 1940 -- to the attempts of the United States to enforce the mandate of the United Nations Security Council in disarming Iraq, is only the most recent example of how France has stymied other nations with its actions.

The root cause of France’s actions can possibly be found in its egotistical pretensions. Pushed from the limelight of the international stage, France has made it its duty to reign in the burgeoning power of the world’s only remaining superpower – the United States. France aspires to be the watchdog of the world, a nation that can hold back the tide of American hegemony and keep the world a healthy and balanced conglomeration of more or less equal nations. France is no longer an imposing world power and perhaps thinks that no one else should be either. The mirage of French greatness was shattered on the battlefields of WWI and finally put to sleep during the above mentioned seventy-seven days in 1940. The French star is likely to remain in the eclipse for the present and the foreseeable future. Interestingly enough, this is not the first time that France has pursued an unorthodox course following a fall from conspicuous power. Three significant examples stand out from history to demonstrate how France, deprived of open dominance, has attempted to alter the world’s balance of power through its diplomatic positioning.

During the first half of the sixteenth century, after her imperial ambitions were foiled in Northern Italy, France found herself in a difficult strategic situation. The possessions of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands, and Germany, effectively surrounded the country. To counter the Hapsburg threat, France found a shocking ally. In 1536, King Francis I became the first Christian ruler to sign an alliance with the Ottoman Turks. This was a momentous occasion, while many powers had previously signed treaties of peace with the Sultan no one had become an ally. The Turks, hitherto regarded as the greatest threat to European liberty since the Mongol hordes of the thirteenth century, now became the partners of one Christendom’s most powerful rulers. Nevertheless, Francis was intent on the move in order to contain the ambitions of Charles V, the most powerful ruler in Europe. Granted, the French have not become an ally of Saddam Hussein, but they have become his advocate, insisting he is cooperating with UN weapons inspectors and poses less of a threat to peace than the loose cannons directing American foreign policy.

Less than a hundred years after the Franco-Turkish alliance, with Europe shuddering under the strain of the Thirty Years War, France once again chose an unexpected but politically expedient side. The country itself was recently emerging from decades of civil and religious strife. Instead of allying itself, as a Catholic country, with the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II, France decided to fight on the side of the Protestant German, Swedish, and Dutch forces. This course was pursued not out of devout belief in the Protestant cause, but mainly to counter the resurgent power of the empire, and the dominant power of Spain. France had no real affinity for the Protestant cause, but the desire to maintain the balance of power in Europe drove the fleur-de-lis onto the side of the “heretics.”

Finally, we must not forget that France supported the revolution of thirteen British colonies in North America. Bourbon France was one of the bastions of Europe’s “Old Order” of empires. Despite this position, the bait of revenge against a British Empire that had so recently taken over France’s large holdings in North America and pushed it out of the Indian sub-continent proved too strong. Holding its aristocratic nose against the progressive doctrines of liberty, equality, and justice, France allied itself against Britain, the most powerful state in the world. Men, arms, and ships were sent across the Atlantic to help America win its freedom. This, in the end, of course had the odd result of pushing an already shaky French economy into dire straits and sparking a new, exclusively French Revolution with “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as its (borrowed) by-words.

Now in the present, France has once more aligned herself against the greatest power in the world in an effort to stem that nation’s attempts to deal with international problems as it sees fit. It is important for America to recognize the lessons of history and to realize how far France may go to deny the United States what she denied Charles V in the sixteenth century, Ferdinand II in the seventeenth, and (soon to be mad) George III in the eighteenth. France, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, cannot accept a secondary role in world affairs and will use every means at its disposal to push forward into the limelight. In light of the track record, “the actions of our so-called ally, France”* are not as surprising as they seem on the surface.

Andrew Novo is an independent foreign policy analyst based in New York. His opinions may not necessarily reflect those of KWR International

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Associate Editor: Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Keith W. Rabin,
Jonathan Lemco, Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, Barry Metzger, Russell Smith,
Ilissa A. Kabak, Andrew Novo, Jonathan Hopfner, C. H. Kwan, Dominic Scriven and Andrew Thorson

To obtain your free subscription to the KWR International Advisor, please click here to register for the KWR Advisor mailing list

For information concerning advertising, please contact: Advertising@kwrintl.com

Please forward all feedback, comments and submission and reproduction requests to: KWR.Advisor@kwrintl.com

© 2003 KWR International, Inc.