Created in the image of Charles de Gaulle, the institutions and ideals of France's Fifth Republic were tailored for greatness. "France cannot be France without grandeur," the late general once famously declared -- and grandeur could only be grand on the world stage. But if the world was de Gaulle's stage, his audience was decidedly French: Greatness abroad, he believed, would unify his notoriously quarrelsome subjects at home.
The Gaullist imperative to think locally but act globally left a deep mark on subsequent French presidents: Whether conservative, liberal or socialist, they have all been Gaullists when it comes to matters abroad. This insistence on the so-called French exception in the realm of foreign affairs, while often a source of irritation to France's allies, has been an ideal to which the country's public, as well as its political and intellectual classes, have long rallied.
The election last year of President François Hollande, however, was supposed to herald something very different. Having campaigned primarily on domestic economic issues -- his Socialist Party's mantra was "C'est l'économie, pauvre con!" ("It's the economy, stupid!") -- Hollande scarcely mentioned foreign affairs. But something funny happened on the way to France's intervention in Mali in January. In launching an offensive to rout jihadists from the north of the former French colony, Hollande was transformed, like his former mentor François Mitterrand, into an accidental Gaullist. Now, three months after the first French troops arrived in Bamako, France has all but forgotten about its African exploits -- the news that a sixth French soldier died this week in Mali scarcely created a ripple in the French media -- though, as the recent bombing of the French Embassy in Tripoli suggests, Africa hasn't forgotten about France.
While the rapidity of the president's decision to intervene in Mali surprised the political and intellectual classes -- Hollande, nicknamed Flamby after a custard-like dessert, was hardly known for his resolve -- they immediately closed ranks behind him. Public opinion followed, as did France's intellectuals. While few were as gung-ho as Bernard Henri-Lévy, who had earlier led the charge for France's intervention in Libya, most agreed with the French daily Le Monde's verdict that Hollande's decision was "le choix de moindre mal," the lesser evil.
Still, there were those who expressed doubts. Most of the dissenters hailed from the extreme left and, in particular, the Green Party and the Parti de Gauche. Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for example, hinted that Hollande was really after uranium deposits in neighboring Niger, while Green Party leader Noel Mamère dismissed the government's reasons for intervention as "propaganda." Even the flamboyant Gaullist Dominique de Villepin, who served as France's prime minister from 2005-2007, warned that Hollande, ignorant of past and present geopolitical realities, was leading France into another Afghanistan.
The timing of Hollande's decision to intervene in Mali has also attracted the attention of some members of France's chattering class. The philosopher Michel Onfray, for example, mocked Hollande's "pursuit of sandal-wearing Malians while France rolls out the red carpet to states that are buying up our bankrupt country piece by piece." Hollande and his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, had been in freefall in public opinion polls since the fall of 2012. Confronted by a stalling economy and spiraling unemployment -- much of which, to be fair, could be laid at the feet of former President Nicolas Sarkozy -- Hollande appeared increasingly helpless and hapless. One after another, his campaign promises, from the pledge to keep open the Mittal steel plant in the northern city Florange to the vow to soften the monetary and budgetary dictates of Berlin and Brussels, withered into dead letters. Tellingly, just two weeks after the Mali operation was launched, nearly 90 percent of the French told pollsters that France "needed a true leader to reestablish order." (Perhaps no less tellingly, the pollsters did not ask whether they were thinking of order at home or order abroad.)
Three months later, France is still, even frantically, seeking a true leader. Gaullist grandeur, it turns out, is not among Mali's natural resources. In last week's public opinion polls, foreign policy -- by which most everyone understands Mali -- was the one category where at least 50 percent of the respondents gave Hollande a passing grade. This rather anemic support, however, did not bleed into other categories. The bottom line was, in fact, catastrophic: Scarcely one quarter of the French is satisfied with Hollande. Never before has a French president fallen so fast in the eyes of so many in so short a time.
Even France's early rout of Islamist rebels in northern Mali has failed to slow Hollande's descent into the netherworld of public disenchantment. The intervention borders on a Zen koan: If a military operation realizes its aims, but no one is paying attention, is it successful? French military action in Africa has, for the French, all the novelty of a spring rain in Paris. Since 1958 and the creation of the Fifth Republic, Gaullist, liberal, and Socialist presidents alike have sent soldiers and planes to Africa with a regularity and frequency -- four dozen times, according to one recent estimate -- that has largely inured the French public to new interventions.