Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

French lessons

What we can learn from France’s foreign policy

—Just over a decade ago French Fries were renamed ‘Freedom Fries’ in cafeterias on Capitol Hill. French president Jacques Chirac had led United Nations opposition to the 2003 American-led war in Iraq and the Bush administration responded in the way it knew best: with childish belligerence.

It all seems so long ago now, yet in both nations the respective decisions taken on Iraq over 10 years ago (or even earlier, if the conspiracy theorists are to be believed) continue to shape foreign policy.

In the United Kingdom, certain quarters of the left still define themselves almost wholly in opposition to Tony Blair – largely because he took Britain into that war. During the pre-election television debates with Jeremy Paxman, when seeking to marshal his world leader credentials, Ed Miliband interpreted ‘toughness’ as standing up to Barack Obama when the latter proposed air strikes on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2013. Miliband did not feel the need to set out how he would rein in Vladimir Putin, the leader of an increasingly aggressive revanchist autocracy. Nor was his main concern Islamic State, currently rampaging through the Middle East. Instead he defined himself in opposition to the leader of the free world.

The Iraq war – and cheap accusations that Blair was George Bush’s ‘poodle’ – made British politics like that.

But while Britain goes through various unedifying contortions to free itself from the legacy of Iraq, France is pursuing its national interest overseas but also addressing humanitarian crises. In part this is down to the French presidential system, which puts fewer hurdles in the way of the executive when the latter wants to take military action. But there is also a new consensus among politicians of both major parties in France that the country should be an active partner with the United States on the world stage.

France under Nicolas Sarkozy was at the forefront of efforts to implement a no-fly zone in Libya when Colonel Gaddafi was threatening to massacre anti-government rebels in Benghazi in 2011. And, rather than break with the interventionism of Sarkozy, the tenure of Socialist party rival François Hollande, who came to power in 2012, has been marked by continuity in foreign policy. Hollande has sent troops to thwart what the French government called a ‘pre-genocidal’ situation in Central African Republic and has deployed French forces against jihadists in the Sahel.

As well as averting a number of potential humanitarian catastrophes, an activist foreign policy has meant that France, rather than Britain, is increasingly the first port of call for Obama and Angela Merkel when dealing with international crises. When Merkel and Hollande met earlier this year to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine – bypassing David Cameron in the process – Britain’s former top Nato commander General Sir Richard Shirreff dismissed Cameron as a ‘diplomatic irrelevance’. It is also France – rather than Britain – that is pushing for a much-needed radical overhaul of the UN. So that the international response to genocide is not reliant upon the interests of Russia and China (or even on our own so-called ‘interests’) the French government has called for the five main UN Security Council powers to suspend their right to veto any resolution when a ‘mass crime’ has been committed.

It is against this backdrop – of Tory parochialism and isolationism – that Labour can learn something from its French comrades. There are many obvious lessons to take from the botched and violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the mistake, from a humanitarian but also from a pragmatic point of view, is to see every conflict as Iraq Mark Two. Look back a bit further than 2003 and this becomes clear. Twenty years ago this month 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serbian forces in the Bosnian village of Srebrenica. A year before that 800,000 people died in Rwanda. Since 2011, around 250,000 have died in Syria. These were the bitter fruits of non-intervention, intervention’s equally violent little brother.

We often hear Conservative politicians and economists boasting about the various things that France could learn from Britain. But French socialists are proving that, in some areas at least, the opposite holds true. In foreign policy, so often the scene of churlish anti-American sentiment a decade ago – it was former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine who coined the term ‘hyperpower’ to describe American unilateralism – France has grown up. It has learned the lessons of Iraq without turning that conflict into an obsession. In developing a coherent critique of Conservative foreign policy, Labour could do worse than follow the French lead.


James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward


Photo: Francois Hollande

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James Bloodworth

is a journalist and author of The Myth of Meritocracy


  • It is frightening to read Mr.Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward reel off a list of atrocities and numbers killed across the globe over the last twenty years and then state ” These were the bitter fruits of non-intervention, intervention’s equally violent little brother.”
    That quote from the article deserves to be read again. I assume that what Mr. Bloodwoth means here is that, he is of the opinion and can convince the readers of his article, that had Britain taken upon itself the responsibilities of global policeman, or as it used to be called during the days of empire, the white mans burden, that our intervention in Serbrinica, Rwanda and Syria would have prevented these atrocities.
    That is the rationale of a far right wing US Republican neo con. It is delusional, a revision of history and at worst a denial of war crimes.
    But on second reading what he actually states is even more sinister. In this quotation from his article Mr.Bloodworth conflates the meaning of “non-intervention” and “intervention” as “equally violent brothers”. Apply Mr.Bloodworth’s logic to any theatre of global conflict and it doesn’t matter whether we invade another country or not, why? because atrocities will still happen. Mr Bloodworth may think that to win an argument, clever rhetoric is better than zero logic. We Scots are not better educated.

  • Is it any wonder that Labour is in the mess its in when Progress (the irony of that word does cheer me up) prefers not to print rather than read honest thoughtful criticism.

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