David A. Bell is Professor of History at Princeton University. Born in New York City in 1961, he received his A.B. from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton.
It remains to be seen whether France's military intervention in Mali will be considered a military success, but it already seems possible to count it a political one. The war has earned support from across the French political spectrum, President François Hollande has garnered acclaim for his leadership, and the French public broadly supports the country's stated humanitarian mission. The intervention recalls the days when “la grande nation” laid claim to an ambitious international role, particularly within its former colonial empire.
But in today's France, this portrait of unity and resolve is actually something of an aberration. Far from expressing a confident sense of mission, the French public has recently been more inclined to a sense of decline, malaise, paralysis and crisis. And it is at least partially justified.
Effective action of any sort has been largely missing from the French political scene for some time. The economy continues to sputter, with the overall growth rate close to zero for the past year. Unemployment has not fallen below seven percent for twenty years, and currently stands at well over ten percent. Economic competitiveness has fallen badly, with France’s share of world exports dropping by more than half over the past fourteen years. The Euro continues to bleed under a mass of band-aids, and its crisis could eventually spread upwards from southern Europe. Whereas Hollande’s last Socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand, came to office in 1981 with a program of radical reform (nationalization, decentralization, increased workers’ rights and benefits) Hollande’ initiatives have been mostly small scale. And France’s constitutional council has already quashed the most provocative of them, a proposed 75 percent tax on annual income over one million euros. The most widely-reported anti-socialist protest barely even rises to the level of farce: actor Gérard Dépardieu’s acceptance of Russian citizenship so as to avoid the threatened high taxes. Hollande provoked a massive protest rally last weekend with his support for marriage equality, though this measure, in the end, is likely to prove far less divisive than its opponents hope....