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Stay the course in Afghanistan?

Latest update : 2008-08-24

France's role in the war in Afghanistan is again a subject for debate after the death of 10 French soldiers in an ambush near Kabul. The Canadian viewpoint may influence the French government's next moves in the conflict.


The loss of 10 French paratroopers during an ambush in the region of Kabul has sparked wide public debate over France’s involvement in Afghanistan. How will France react, especially given the nation’s reluctance to participate in what people consider an “American war”?

 

France might look for ideas across the Atlantic to its ally and US–neighbour, Canada, where public opinion has largely opposed the war.

“All the public debates taking place in Canada are premonitory,” according to Paul Vallet, researcher at the Paris based Institute of Political Studies (IEP), “since until now France has stayed away from the warfare perspective,” he added.

The Canadian experience could serve as a warning to France, which has now deployed 700 elite troops in one of Afghanistan’s most perilous areas.

In the spring of 2006, eager to mend ties with the US, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent 2500 Canadian troops to fight the Taliban in Kandahar, the militia’s stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Two years of fighting in extreme conditions has cost the lives of at least 80 Canadian soldiers. The extreme unpopularity of the Afghan war with Canadians has forced Harper’s government to use all means of diplomacy and persuasion to counter reticent public opinion.

Reacting to the French soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, France’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner explained: “It’s important to understand that we are helping the Afghans fight against extremism, attacks, regression and to maintain the restored democracy.”

“Kouchner’s speech is similar to what was said in Canada a few years ago,” says Frédéric Mérand, a political science professor at the University of Montreal. “It’s an outdated speech, lost to a more pragmatic one about the impact of this region on world security.”

Clearly the Canadians didn’t fall for the humanist argument. Since 2007, 60 percent of the public has opposed Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. The Canadian army, directly in the firing line in the fight against the Taliban, also expressed its unhappiness. One year on in 2008, the Canadian government, in a tricky position knowing it had to renew its military commitment to the NATO, threatened to leave Afghanistan unless other NATO allies sent in reinforcements to the “deadliest” zones in southern Afghanistan.

Following Canada’s threat, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the decision to move the French army beyond the Afghan capital Kabul to Kapisa, a more dangerous area. “For the president, it was a way of showing solidarity with deployed troops from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Canada,” explains Paul Vallet.

So, like Harper, does Nicolas Sarkozy also risk weakening his position by leading French troops into combat in Afghanistan? In the short term, says Frédéric Mérand, the deaths of soldiers could give people a feeling of solidarity with the army especially as France, unlike Canada, is used to deadly combat. But, “in the long term”, he says, “people won’t want to keep seeing widows and orphans, they won’t accept that soldiers keep dying.”
 

Date created : 2008-08-24

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