The recent French decision to increase the number of troops from roughly 400 to 1,600 in the Central African Republic (CAR) and giving them a combat role has been received with mixed reactions in France.
But with a dismal 20% approval rating in November 2013 (President Hollande has broken unpopularity records in France) the approximately 50% of the French supporting the military intervention in the Central African Republic demonstrates that even though public opinion is lukewarm, it is one of the few areas where the President is not failing.
For Francois Hollande and his government, military action is justified by the precarious situation on the ground, and, as was the case with Mali, by showing strength in the face of terrorism. Whether seeking to reap the benefits of the “rally round the flag effect” is part of the impetus is difficult to ascertain – but the French have been successful and generally praised for their efforts in Mali and the CAR (Kofi Annan recently “congratulated” France during a French TV interview for their intervention in those two countries.)
Ultimately, the French public supports the notion that France has a role to play in supporting peace and democracy – in particular in countries formerly under its rule. Over the last few decades, there have been numerous limited French military interventions along the same lines as the ones in Mali and the Central African Republic, and while the French public has little appetite for proactive military action (Iraq, for example), there is certainly support for reactive interventions (Cote d’Ivoire, DRC, Central African Republic, Mali, etc.)
That said, the French also have a tendency to show greater support for military intervention once it’s underway. The polls showed that 64% of the public was opposed to intervening in the CAR last week, prior to the launch of the intervention. However, a mere few days later, only 49% were opposed. Criticism has been focused on the potential cost of these military operations to the taxpayers, as well as the relative isolation of France, in particular with regards to the European Union and the lack of partners in these interventions.
The current intervention, however, is financed through a 50 million euro package from the EU, and Hollande has been able to leverage the French position in the Central African Republic to advocate for greater EU responsibility and action, calling specifically for a permanent European fund to finance these types of operations. Given his weakened position on the home front, being seen as a leader on the international scene, with a strong, successful military and a robust mandate from the UN, is a boost for Francois Hollande.