Some Worry French Military Stretched Too Thin

Aug 2, 2011

France has been engaged on numerous military fronts this year as the country's armed forces back up President Nicolas Sarkozy's active foreign policy. The French military's quick success in ousting Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo was lauded, but other interventions — like the one in Libya — drag on, leaving many to wonder if public support and the country's budget will be able to keep pace.

Analysts say the French military is in crisis, strained by restructuring and budget cuts, and tested by three simultaneous conflicts abroad.

Not since the early 1990s, with Bosnia and Rwanda, has the French military been so stretched. "France no longer has the military means to match its political ambitions," ran a front-page headline in newspaper Le Monde. And recently, a French admiral was admonished for saying the country's only aircraft carrier could be nonoperational for all of 2012 if it did not return from the Libyan coast for maintenance.

That's an exaggeration, says Jean-Pierre Maulny, of the Paris-based International Strategic Research Institute. But Maulny says it will be hard to keep this momentum up for the long or even the medium term.

"It's true that the Charles de Gaulle needs routine maintenance, and while we have enough pilots to continue flying sorties over Libya, we cannot for the moment train new ones," Maulny says. "The intervention in Libya is led by the Europeans, and countries will start dropping out and public support eroding if we do not find a political solution soon."

France budgeted around $1.2 billion to support its military operations abroad this year in places like Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Chad, says military consultant Pierre Conesa — and then Sarkozy decided to intervene in Libya.

"So there is a very important political debate: how to fund, you know, these kinds of political decisions which suppose military means," Conesa says.

Conesa says the gap between political ambitions and those military means will force France to be much more careful about using its military in foreign crises.

France's Role On The World Stage

French pilots in Rafale and Mirage jets have flown about a third of the NATO missions over Libya. The Libya intervention is estimated to cost France about $1.5 million a day, yet so far it enjoys bipartisan support in Parliament. The public, too, is largely supportive.

"The French public still wants their president to play a very important role on the world stage," says Steven Ekovich, a professor of international studies at the American University in Paris. "The French have, of course, an expectation. The grandeur of France is still very important. So there's an internal political dimension to this, as well."

And there's a price to be paid. Two weeks ago, a solemn national funeral for seven soldiers killed in Afghanistan was broadcast live on French television. Public support has turned against the decade-long Afghan war, and Sarkozy has promised to bring French troops home by 2014.

In Libya, the French president's bold moves have paid off so far, but Sarkozy knows the situation must now be resolved quickly or public opinion will turn against him.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said two weeks ago that Moammar Gadhafi could stay in Libya, as long as he relinquished power. French officials are clearly changing their tone and lowering expectations as they search for a political solution to bring their four-month military operation in Libya to an end.

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