The French presidential campaign was characterized by a quasi-absence of debates on foreign policy. This was hardly a change from previous campaigns; rarely does one gain voters by talking about international affairs.
The only genuine foreign policy issue that had some traction was Afghanistan. François Hollande, early in his campaign, stated that if elected he would pull out all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years before the agreed timeline. This pledge was set in stone in François Hollande’s 60-point proposal, where he only devoted four points to foreign policy.
This position has stirred concerns both at NATO and among Allies. Within the organization, the issue is deemed “sensitive.” Meanwhile, several heads of state and government, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama, have urged the French leader to reconsider his position.
This will not happen. There is a saying in French: "promises only commit those who listen to them." Yet President Hollande cannot afford to back away from this one. There are two reasons for his position. First, he will have to show to the French people and the rest of the world that “France is not just any European country and the French President is not just any President in the world,” as he recently said. This first test will be important to stress his assertiveness. Second, his announcement at the Chicago Summit will come only two weeks after his election – a bit early to break a pledge.
However, a few indicators should alleviate concerns. First, Hollande has adjusted his stance. Some well-informed people must have told him that he cannot expect a 3,600-strong force and all its equipment to withdraw in just over six months. Consequently, only “combat troops” will leave by the end of 2012. We can expect the La Fayette Task Force in Kapisa to withdraw, which represents about 60 percent of all French military personnel in Afghanistan, which will already be a challenge. However, it remains to be seen what will happen to troops in operational mentoring and liaison teams (OMLT) and the logistical teams. As for the equipment, it is likely that the troops will not bring everything back.
Second, it is important to remember that Nicolas Sarkozy had already decided that French troops would be leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2013. His announcement brought about similar concerns, but it was finally accepted. François Hollande is shaking up the withdrawal plan again, but he will try to be sensible and already said that the withdrawal would take place in close consultation with the Allies. He sent some close advisors on defense issues to London, Washington, and NATO Headquarters to mitigate concerns. A US delegation was in Paris last week to talk with the new president's team on Afghanistan to avoid any unwelcome showdowns in Chicago. He knows that he will need to work out a compromise without completely backing off from his original position.
However, this decision does not send a warm first signal to the Allies. First, a plan will be needed for Kapisa. Will France speed up the transition to hand over responsibilities to the Afghan authorities to save face or will another NATO ally take up the responsibility to complete the objective? Moreover, the solidarity bond within the Alliance already appears fragile, and France’s position was just starting to normalize after Sarkozy’s decision to reintegrate NATO’s military structures in 2009. Can an Afghanistan withdrawal be the first step toward a larger shift vis-à-vis NATO? Hollande’s decision to assess French contribution to NATO and his opposition to the Sarkozy decision at the time make this a possibility.
Most concerns are exaggerated, but he will have to overcome those first impressions. He will indeed not revert to the French pre-2009 hybrid position within the Alliance, but rather France will resemble the “indocile ally” it has always been. His assessment will most likely result in France reducing its physical contribution in military personnel within the NATO command structure.
He will need to avoid Allies being suspicious of French positions, because France can play an important role in the reassessment of NATO’s future after Afghanistan, the most delicate and sensitive challenge for the Alliance in the years ahead. To be a key player in that debate, France cannot afford to be ill perceived by other Allies, especially if François Hollande wants to push forward closer relations between the EU Common Security and Defense Policy and NATO.
Vivien Pertusot is head of office in Brussels for the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). You can follow him on Twitter at @VPertusot.