Do I really want to live in a world in which France is a moral and military leader?
I began to ask this question last July, when newly elected French President Francois Hollande spoke at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Rafle du Vel D'Hiv. The rafle, or round-up, was a mass arrest of over 13,000 French Jews carried out by the French police. Those arrested were detained -- at first -- in the Winter Velodrome (Vélodrome d'Hiver), then sent to internment camps in France and ultimately to Auschwitz. Very few returned.
It was not until 1995, more than 50 years later, that a French leader -- then President Jacques Chirac -- publically recognized French responsibility. Hollande, in 2012, took it one step further, calling the Vel D'Hiv a crime committed 'en France, par la France' -- in France, by France. Were that not enough, he reminded people that 'pas un seul soldat Allemand' -- not one German soldier -- took part.
I have a great fondness for France, having lived there five years. My first year there I was studying at the Sorbonne and working as an au pair, looking after a three-year-old girl. At that time, Klaus Barbie was being tried in France for crimes committed while he was in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon. While ironing or shaking up vinaigrette, I watched a fair bit of trial coverage (in between episodes of Mannix in French) and deduced through some ill-chosen Basil Fawlty-esque conversation starters with my little charge's maman that anything to do with the war was a potential powder-keg.
Twenty years later, tensions may have lessened, but historical compartmentalizing persists. In her 2011 book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, Elaine Sciolino writes
An example of France's amnesia is a plaque affixed to the wall of the Hotel Lutetia, an Art Deco landmark on the Left Bank in Paris. It identifies the hotel as the reception center for returning deportees and prisoners of war in 1945; it says nothing about its sinister role between 1940 and 1944 as the Paris headquarters of the German Army's intelligence operations during the Occupation.
In short, there are likely not many votes to gain in invoking French war guilt. But Hollande did so and I thought, 'Ooh la la.' And then the French intervention in Mali began and I thought, 'Ooh la la. What do we have here?'
Someone with a spine and some moral clarity, it would seem. And yes, political savvy. France has economic interests in Mali, but I've never understood people's objections to looking out for those. Still, the intervention in Mali is primarily a humanitarian one and as such, it ought to be defended by 'progressives' (a term I hate because it would indicate the rest of us are 'regressive') everywhere. Some - such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has praised Hollande's courage -- are doing so.
Mali is part of the broader struggle against Islamists and the assorted thugs, mercenaries and splinter groups that are ever joining them in their alleged fight against 'colonialism' and various sizes of satans. It is a struggle that shouldn't be abandoned and maybe it will take leftist leaders to fight it. Please note the distinct lack of large anti-war protests on the streets of Western cities, at least in comparison to the past. When Republican American presidents take action against dictators or violent theocrats, far more people take umbrage.
In 2008, I predicted that a President Obama could be just the man to lead the charge in this regard and for these very reasons. So I was wrong about the 'who' of it. Sue me. I was correct that any permutation of a progressive at war would receive less grief than any permutation of a conservative.
To answer my initial question then, yes, I guess I do want to live in a world where France leads, if only because the man who should be doing so is too busy making sure health insurance plans offer free birth control to be bothered with existential threats.
Alors merci, Francois Hollande. You understand the importance of free peoples. Now, if only we could get you to understand the importance of free markets.