France’s Ifop polling organization released results this week providing some rare insight into the French mentality on military action. It would be too simplistic—
and also factually incorrect—
to accept conventional wisdom in the wake of the country’s opposition to post-9/11 efforts in Iraq suggesting that the French are allergic to any and all military conflict. Today, 66% of French people favour “the military coalition in Libya, notably comprising France, the U.K., and the U.S.A. against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces”—
nearly a full 20% higher favorability rating than a Gallup Poll of Americans on the same issue. It could just be that Americans don’t see a good reason for getting involved, while the French do. But there may be some other factors at play.
Less than three weeks earlier, the exact same question elicited a favorable response from only 36% of French—a figure that would have put them well below even American support. So what happened in the interim to win the French over so drastically? They probably just noticed that this war wasn’t killing people—at least not in immoderate numbers. The French aren’t averse to military intervention, particularly one conducted for humanitarian reasons and slaughter-stopping. In fact, it’s been seen as so successful that they’d like to keep going, s’il vous plait. Calls for another intervention in the Ivory Coast prompted President Sarkozy to assure the public this week that similar measures are being assessed by NATO to stop a possible civil war led by loyalists of ousted President Laurent Gbagbo, announcing that at the very least heavy artillery has to be banned in rebel-dominated zones. Of course, if these tanks and troublemakers don’t move themselves, then something of a higher calling has to vaporize them—and with the Ivory Coast falling under the French sphere of influence in Africa, the burden to actually do anything significantly useful would likely be Sarkozy’s.
But the question remains with any of these humanitarian missions involving weapons: Can they be fully achieved without significant casualties? And can popularity for these efforts be sustained if the end result requires some dying and killing to happen. People nowadays even get upset about enemy casualties, as we saw when Saddam Hussein was hanged, after all he had done to violate human rights in Iraq. They want fantasy results without realistic repercussions. And the erosion of support for war as it becomes less idealistic and more realistic isn’t uniquely a French phenomenon: Seventy-six per cent of Americans supported the Iraq War at its outset, and 90% heading into Afghanistan.
If photos start coming in—even of dead Gaddafi forces—one might then expect to see erosion of support everywhere, especially in France, where support is so significantly high. It’s difficult to see how any humanitarian mission can end without the forcible removal of the threat. Managing the situation only ever appears to prolong the inevitable, as the West already learned when assuming, in the wake of the Iraq invasion, that Gaddafi would live out the rest of his days as a quirky but harmless muppet. And while the latest official United Nations resolution doesn’t specify an endgame, both Obama and Sarkozy have evoked regime change. If that becomes the goal, then the situation risks getting messy and looking a lot less like the current “kinetic military action” video game described by Obama, in which coalition members are bombing a few parked tanks and enemy jets, competing with each other for the high score.
More evidence that French support is limited to its current state of “humanitarian intervention” lies in Ifop’s breakdown of respondents’ political leanings: Sixty-nine per cent of the French collective Left supports the war, which is even higher than the 66% favorability from the Right. This could mean one or both of two things: Either the French Left’s antiwar anxiety is assuaged by the notion of a Nobel Peace Prize winner dropping the bombs, or the French Right doesn’t trust him not to somehow screw it up. No one in France thinks that Sarkozy is actually in charge of a war, so what you’re seeing here is essentially the French opinion on Obama’s competence as a military commander.
The French political breakdown showing greater support on the Left is the exact opposite of Gallup Poll results in America, with 57% Republican approval for the Libyan intervention compared with 51% favorability among Democrats. As Gallup concluded, this may suggest that Republicans support war in general, whereas Democrats just like Obama a lot—even when he’s bombing things. It could be argued that Republicans’ support would be much higher if one of their own was running the show.
Indeed, when polling science like this starts showing the French Left more supportive of a war than the American Right, it’s hard not to wonder what conventional wisdom has been smoking, and be overcome by a sudden compulsion to rifle through the numbers in search of its stash.