In 1953, the French literary critic Roland Barthes published his now classic work Writing Zero Degree. "Writing," Barthes argued, was liberty by other means: While the artist is "situated" in a specific historical context, she nevertheless expresses her individuality through the language and style she fuses together. Freedom is possible even in a world where events seem determined.
Sixty years later, as the world debates the merits of a military strike on Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, France has returned to a sort of zero degree. This is both odd and fitting. Odd, because rather than France's artists, it is her foreign-policy makers who seem to have turned to Barthes. Fitting, because as Paris becomes ever more deeply "situated" in the Syrian morass, the government of François Hollande has taken the opportunity to express a new riff on the theme of French exceptionalism.
Last week, Hollande's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, addressed a gathering of French ambassadors and diplomats who met at the Quai d'Orsay for a series of conferences on the challenges France faces over the next 10 years. There was, of course, much self-congratulation for the country's successful military intervention in Mali -- recently handed off to U.N. peacekeepers -- and much self-introspection about problems ranging from global warming to disparities in global economic development.
Amidst the high-fives and deep thoughts, however, Fabius slipped in some insight about how he -- and perhaps the Quai d'Orsay -- conceptualizes the world. Until the 21st century, he noted, France navigated global seas that were variously bipolar, unipolar, and multipolar. Now, however, France has lurched into an "a-polar or zero-polar world." Teeming with "numerous actors, both states and non-states, of varying sizes and natures," this brave new world defeats the efforts of a single actor, or even a group of actors, to "assure effective and uncontested leadership."
This notion is intriguing less for what it says about the world -- after all, it is but a French remake of Richard Haass's "non-polar world" or Ian Bremmer's "G-zero world" -- than for what it says about France. In effect, Fabius wants to "situate" France, to use Barthes's term, in a world that will allow it to preserve and justify what remains of its vaunted foreign policy independence. A zero-polar world is, in effect, a weightless world -- one where a nation in decline might actually rise. In a world without magnetic north, deep cuts to France's military budget need not preclude her ability to project herself as a "puissance repère" or "noteworthy power," to borrow from Fabius. In short, America's "oldest ally" is back. Unfortunately, as in 1776, her finances are shoddy and her political leadership keener on making tough decisions abroad than at home.
As images from the Aug. 21 gas attack in the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta began to filter into the Western media, Hollande declared boldly that those responsible for the attack "will be held responsible." By Aug. 25, French intelligence services were certain that Damascus had ordered the attack; two days later, at the same meeting of ambassadors where Fabius spoke, Hollande announced that "France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents." As with the case of Mali earlier this year, Hollande's determination and decisiveness in this instance contrasted dramatically with his actions on domestic issues. Monsieur Flamby had again morphed into Asterix, the slight but fearless hero of René Goscinny's comic book series.
Also like the Mali operation, the opposition parties seemed once again to be slouching towards a "union sacrée" -- a government of national unity reminiscent of the solidarity that reigned during World War I. The day after Hollande pledged to punish the perpetrators, Jean-François Copé, the leader of the neo-Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) announced that the president's declaration was, in both language and substance, spot-on. In response to those who worried about the legality of such an intervention, Alain Juppé, foreign minister under both Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that one hardly needed to cite Antigone to recall that there are certain unwritten moral precepts that trump written laws. And had not Dominique de Villepin, France's dashing foreign minister who led the opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, earlier criticized Hollande for being too soft on the Assad regime? France must keep open its military options, he said in mid-2012: "If a crisis develops in the region, France will have no choice but to step in."