In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.
Over the past two weeks, fundamentalist attacks have spread terror from Beirut to Tunis and from Bamako to Paris. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) killed 43 civilians in a market in Lebanon on November 12, 130 Parisians the next day as well as 12 members of the presidential guard in Tunisia on Tuesday, while al-Qaeda tried to steal headlines by murdering 19 hotel residents and workers in Mali on Friday.
The rapid succession of these cowardly strikes confirms an undeniable increase in terrorist actions from fundamentalist groups at a time when ISIL is experiencing losses on the battlefield. It raises a series of questions over the choice of targets and how global powers should respond.
The flying of the French flag in solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks, while criticised, had nothing to do with the primacy of one nation’s victims over another.
Rather, it was the representation of global solidarity with values embodied by the French civic identity, normative structures shared jointly by the presidential guard in Tunis or the students at the University College Campus of Garissa in northeastern Kenya.
As much as the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan in January was a symbol of the paramount importance of freedom of expression – and not support for the specific editorial line of a handful of leftist journalists.
The French flags represented support for universal values which are common to victims in Mali, Lebanon or Kenya. Whether they targeted the multi-confessionalism of a state such as Lebanon, the relatively successful transition to democracy in Tunisia, the universal access to public university in Kenya or the re-establishment of the rule of law and democratic institutions in Mali, recent terrorist attacks have targeted the same cradle of liberal values, that infused the republican order after the French revolution.
France has a very specific role to play in, and a responsibility for, answering those attacks in these African and Mediterranean countries.
In that sense, France has a very specific role to play in, and a responsibility for, answering the attacks in these African and Mediterranean countries. ISIL has declared war on the enlightened humanism propounded by Rousseau and Diderot and which resulted in the contemporary era in the establishment of a series of secular laws enabling the peaceful coexistence of all religious communities in France.
Lebanon, Mali and Tunisia have all been strongly influenced by these values during the period of colonisation, which explains their antinomy today with ISIL’s world view. The words Liberty, Equality and Fraternity strongly clash with the practices of ISIL, which are based on slavery, terror and pseudo-religious dictatorship.
However, the promotion of these values in French foreign policy towards Africa has not always been obvious. Over the past decade, France has seen a dramatic shift in approach between the Sarkozy administration and the Hollande presidency. Tunisia is a good example of this stammering French diplomacy.
In the first days of the Arab Spring, the French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was on holiday in a hotel in Tunisia paid for by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. She is remembered for her lukewarm support of street demonstrations and for putting stability and short-term pragmatic gain over the normative values of the Republique.
Nicolas Sarkozy himself had opened wide the doors of the Elysee Palace to the likes of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi.
Under his presidency, the revolutionary forces in Tunisia received limited support from Paris in their quest to establish a republican democracy. Ironic when one remembers that Sarkozy renamed his party to “Les Republicains” in order to build on populistic momentum in the run-up to elections.
The narrative defended by Sarkozy vis-a-vis Africa was also patronising, when he reiterated his view that Africans were still incapable of providing a contribution to the history of mankind.
In contrast, the Hollande administration has taken a different approach geared mainly towards co-development. Albeit, everything is not perfect as Hollande’s recent trip to Africa – Angola, Benin, Cameroon – questionably provided support to local non-elected leaders in the hopes of grabbing additional markets and contracts.
Still, there is an undeniable evolution. From a neocolonial economic interventionism on the continent, France seems to have evolved into a constructive security and logistics partner in the hopes of strengthening local institutions.
Its engagement in several theatres of operations in Mali, the Central African Republic and Cameroon, confirms a long-term interest in strengthening those countries’ economies and institutions beyond the short-sighted objective of control of resources.
France, therefore, has moved from a complicit supporter of despots in the region to a more constructive partner. Was it a successful strategic change?
On the one hand, France now pays the price with an increased rate of terrorist attacks.
On the other, by supporting democracy and the rule of law, France’s actions are more in line with its values and rhetoric. This approach should also help France to regain a position of predominance with financial partners and governments after its local hegemony was clearly being challenged by other powers, such as China and the United States.
Remi Piet is assistant professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.