France’s Feeble Demand

One trait that France and the United States have in common is that each nation acts like it has moral authority to lead the world.

The opportunity for global leadership rests largely on other factors — namely power, wealth and credibility — things that the United States tends to have more of than France. But whenever a smaller state challenges a larger one, it usually needs a moral advantage to prevail. A good example is the one Panama enjoyed in negotiations with the United States over the Panama Canal. That lesson has eluded France. Even though France’s ethical credibility remains stained over its unconditional support for Rwanda until the early days of the Central African nation’s 1994 genocide, French leaders recently launched a bipartisan challenge to the United States over its unilateral dominance of world affairs.

The French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, began the refrain last November in a Paris speech when he called America a “hyperpower.” A month later, Vedrine, a Socialist, told American reporters in Paris that American leaders “have always been for sharing the burden” of multilateral actions. But, he added,”[t]hey’ve never been much for sharing the decision-making” over those actions.

The same week, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, another Socialist, urged America to exercise power more “discreet[ly],” and President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, insisted that the United States do nothing less than share its power. Their joint demand would no doubt stand a better chance of success if nations were to perceive that France enjoyed moral authority over the United States.

Is France up to the challenge?

Many non-Americans fear America’s influences needs to be checked.

At the very least, countless people worldwide are glad to finally see at least one Western nation stand up to the United States. Many non-Americans fear that America’s overwhelming economic and cultural influences need to be checked. The world, too, has observed the technological superiority of U.S. weapons in strikes from Baghdad to Khartoum, along with America’s readiness (and shamelessness) to use them. Since American bombers (with the help of the British) dominated NATO’s air strikes last year against Serbia, France has pushed Europe to upgrade its capabilities in order to provide a Western military alternative to American-led might.

One might dismiss France’s challenge if one did not know that France has the largest non-American military force of any NATO ally but Turkey, even though France’s troops are still less than one-fourth the size of U.S. forces. Nevertheless, France is richer and stronger than America’s closest ally, Great Britain. France enjoys another advantage in challenging America’s global influence. Most French people not only want their government to play a lead role in foreign affairs but, unlike Americans, they both expect and accept that French troops will assume risks as needed. Since the Cold War, French troops have been deployed amidst ongoing crises in places from Rwanda to Kosovo with broad French public support.

French people also seem to understand better than Americans do the limits of military power. During the Cold War, France withdrew from Vietnam before the United States decided to back the same army that France had already abandoned. Unlike Americans, French people know well the lesson that even seemingly invincible empires later fall, from the examples of King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. Even France’s currently governing Fifth Republic was founded upon realism. The first president, Charles de Gaulle, sought to rival America’s global power at the same time that he began to withdraw French troops from a civil war in French colonial Algeria over independence.

Another trait that France shares with the United States is the notion that its foreign policy, besides following its own realpolitik over trade and investments, also rests upon moralist ideals. After all, the 18th-century notion that men (and now also women and minorities) enjoy inalienable rights is the moral bedrock of both republics. But while America’s crusades have revolved around exporting economic and political models, France’s campaigns have leaned more toward evangelizing culture and language.

Both Western powers also have placed much weight on upholding their own military credibility to defend their respective allies from perceived external threats, sharing the logic that if one ally were to fall others might follow. This thinking, however, has sometimes led the United States and France to separately squander their credibility along with their principles. While America, during the Cold War, backed South Vietnam against North Vietnamese-backed forces, France, one year after the Berlin Wall fell, began to back Rwanda against another kind of foreign-backed aggression.

Fear of falling dominos has led America and France to each respectively back many regimes, including the aforementioned ones, even as they committed obvious war crimes. President Clinton finally took a step toward acknowledging America’s bloody record a year ago when he apologized in Guatemala City for United States’ complicity in what a U.N. Truth Commission the month before called “acts of genocide.”

France’s role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide stands as the Fifth Republic’s bloodiest foreign campaign, which is all the more ironic being that it failed. The policy was a bipartisan effort led by a Socialist, President Francois Mitterrand. Of no strategic importance and without any valuable resources, Rwanda was not a priority for France until 1990, when a newly formed guerrilla front invaded from Uganda with Ugandan arms as large as Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers. To Rwanda’s ruling Hutu majority, the invading rebels were members of Rwanda’s minority ethnic group, Tutsis. But to France, the rebels were Anglophones backed by Uganda seeking to overthrow an allied Francophone nation.

Belgium, not France, had governed colonial Rwanda, although it was France in the early 1990s that rushed to aid Rwanda’s Francophone regime. Before Belgium had only strengthened colonial Rwanda’s ethnic divisions by issuing the first identity cards with ethnic categories. But over a half-century later, Belgium’s policy was mindful of the massacres that had accompanied the overthrow of a Tutsi monarchy during the country’s transition to independence. Yet France paid no mind to Rwanda’s prior ethnic violence as it provided arms, advisors and paratroopers to the regime. French artillery units assumed positions just south of the northern front bordering Uganda, while, over 40 kilometers away in Kigali, French armored cars patrolled the capital. Meanwhile, Belgium only provided the regime with boots and uniforms in a failed gesture to pressure Rwanda to share power.

French officials apologized for the Hutu government even though the Hutu forces committed many massacres of civilians as it was receiving French arms. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” French Col. Bernard Cussac, France’s military commander in Kigali, said in 1993 about ethnic killings that occurred in the three years leading up to the genocide. Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud was more discreet. “There are violations by the Rwandan army,” he said, “[but] more because of a lack of control by the government rather than the will of the government.”

On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president died when his plane was hit by a rocket fired from the vicinity of a Rwandan army base. Hours later, presidential guards began killing fellow Hutus who were political opponents of the ruling party, starting with the country’s first elected prime minister and 10 Belgian peacekeepers around her. As ruling-party militias spread out to target all Tutsi, France seized control of Kigali’s airport, ostensibly to evacuate French and other Western nationals if necessary, but also so France could still fly in French troops if needed. Days later, however, or on the seventh day of the 90-day genocide, Ambassador Marlaud withdrew all French personnel from Rwanda to leave behind France’s remaining Francophone allies, who by then were directing the slaughter.

France’s role in Rwanda is not without dereliction.

French troops returned to Rwanda less than three months later under hastily granted U.N. auspices to establish a safe haven that, while no doubt protecting many innocent Hutu refugees, also protected countless former regime members turned genocidaires. Although human-rights groups already knew the names of many of the lead suspects, French troops did not apprehend even one. Today France, as part of its regional efforts to build anti-American alliances, is pursuing a similar strategy in the Balkans, where French troops have consistently failed to arrest Serbian war-crimes suspects who seem to move about freely within France’s U.N.-authorized zones of control.

French leaders make a popular case when they demand that America share the reigns of global leadership. But the notion that either Western nation has moral authority over the other only ignores the blood on both their hands. And without ethical credibility to back up its bi-partisan stance, France, alone, is too small and weak to successfully push the United States.

Frank Smyth is author of Arming Rwanda, a January 1994 Human Rights Watch report. The views expressed here are his own. He is a contributing editor of