Nicolas Sarkozy and his “Mission Civilisatrice”

  • April 12, 2011

Imperialism & Insurgency

By seeking to export the French Revolution, the embattled Sarkozy merely hopes to leave behind a lasting legacy.

In 2007, on his first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, Nicolas Sarkozy enraged Africans and Europeans alike when he claimed that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered history.” Now, four years later, trailing in the polls and embarrassed by his government’s incompetent handling of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Sarkozy has decided to give Mother Africa a helping hand — by bombing her into history.

Today, French forces deposed the Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to budge after losing last year’s presidential elections. This comes just a few weeks after Sarkozy’s high-flying liberal heroics over Libya — when the French President called world leaders to an emergency meeting in Paris only to present them with a fait accompli, namely that French jets were already carrying out sorties over Libyan airspace.

Under normal circumstances, Sarkozy’s stout defense of freedom, democracy and human rights would have earned him praise and recognition from around the world. But the circumstances are not normal — and Sarkozy isn’t really getting any recognition, either from the French people or from the international community. The reason, of course, is that his revolutionary volte-face reeks of hypocrisy and opportunism.

Just a few years ago, Sarkozy could be seen merrily embracing his dictatorial friends in the Francophonie and the Mediterranée, one by one: Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Gbagbo. Apparently, it wasn’t much of an issue back then that these strongmen kept their subjects from entering into history; as long as French companies were allowed to enter into the market, this was considered enough progress for Sarkozy. In December last year, his government even offered assistance to Ben Ali in quelling the Tunisian uprising.

But on March 19, Sarkozy suddenly rushed ahead of everyone else in aligning himself with Libyan rebels and orchestrating a UN Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone. In his speech at the end of the carefully-orchestrated ’emergency’ conference in Paris, Sarkozy raved that “the Arab peoples have chosen to liberate themselves from servitude in which they had been chained,” dramatically concluding that “France has decided to take on its role before history.”

Whence this pro-revolutionary zeal, and the sudden return of historical consciousness? Whence the betrayal of his previous friend, Gaddafi, whose spectacular state visit to Paris in 2007 paved the way for normalization of Franco-Libyan ties? And whence the betrayal of another old friend, Laurent Gbagbo? Many analysts have rightly observed that Sarkozy is trailing badly in the polls for next year’s presidential elections, and his foreign antics might be an attempt to boost electoral popularity at home.

But while domestic motivations are likely to play an important role, this is about more than just political opportunism. There is something profoundly philosophical and psychological behind Sarkozy’s newfound militarism. Just a few weeks ago, a number of leading French intellectuals lamented in a public letter that “Europe is powerless, Africa evades us, the Mediterranean steers clear of us, China tames us, and Washington ignores us!” Indeed, “the voice of France has disappeared in the world.”

Around the same time, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French liberal intellectual, traveled to Benghazi to meet with anti-Gaddafi rebels. Lévy secretly kept in touch with Sarkozy and negotiated with the rebels on his behalf. When Lévy told Sarkozy that French flags were being waved everywhere, and that a failure to act would mean the French banner would be stained with blood, he apparently struck a sensitive chord: the President’s hard-wired craving for recognition.

Sarkozy must have belatedly felt that as the President of France, he was after all a torchbearer of modernity and liberalism. As such, he had a “historic duty” not only to protect the universal values of the French Revolution, but to export them beyond France’s borders, spurring on progress wherever and whenever he encountered oppression and backwardness. Unexpectedly, Libya and Ivory Coast provided the little emperor with an opportunity to leave behind a legacy.

For an emperor without an empire, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact the French dream of the mission civilisatrice. While political expedience and strategic considerations certainly play a huge role in spurring Sarkozy to action, the main philosophical tenets of his civilizing mission were spelled out long ago, in that same controversial 2007 speech in Dakar, Senegal:

The African peasant, who for centuries has lived according to the seasons, whose ideal is to be in harmony with nature, has known only the eternal renewal of time via the endless repetition of the same actions and the same words. In this mentality, where everything always starts over again, there is no place for human adventure, nor for any idea of progress.

In this universe where nature is in charge of everything, a man may be free from the anxiety of history that dogs the modern man, but he remains immobile, caught in an unchanging order where everything seems as though it has already been written. This man never projects himself into the future. It never occurs to him to break free from the repetition and invent a destiny for himself.

This, if you will allow a friend of Africa to say it, is Africa’s problem. Africa’s challenge is to enter history more fully. It is to find the force, the energy, the desire and the will to listen to and to marry her own history.

But while French troops were busy bombing Africa into history, two Muslim women were arrested in Paris for failing to observe Sarkozy’s burqa and niqab ban. Once again, it’s been made clear that liberté, égalité and fraternité are only upheld for those who have entered into history — French history, that is. Ask the Maghrebi, African and gypsy minorities, who have been oppressed, excluded, evicted and deported from France every single day since the start of Sarkozy’s heroic foreign interventions. They will tell a very different tale of freedom, equality and fraternity.

While the little emperor is busy brushing up his ego and leaving behind a legacy, let us hope that the African and Arab revolutions don’t turn out to be such elaborate scams as the French one.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is an LSE Fellow in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. For more on his research and writing, visit jeromeroos.com.

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