A former United Nations correspondent, Leslie Pitterson is currently working on the production of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliepitterson.
Every January, as is the custom, the president of France invites a group of the nation's journalists to the Elysée palace. The event, 'voeux a la presse,' is a longstanding tradition where the head of state delivers greetings to the press. Comparable to the White House Correspondent's Dinner, it is an occasion where the who's who of the media and the president come together, marking the relationship of the press and the state with laughter and lavish spreads of food and wine. But this year, the voeux came at a less than festive time.
Days after authorizing military intervention in Mali, French President Francios Hollande took to the podium to deliver the annual greeting to the press. It would be a high-profile speech on the heels of his announcement of increased deployment of French troops to the destabilized sub-Saharan nation. And while many would argue the futility of the voeux in the midst of a week like this one, France's decision to send troops to Mali is a reminder of the importance of the press in the early stages of military intervention.
In France's leading newspapers, the editorials on Hollande's decision to deploy troops to Mali were measured endorsements. In its Monday editorial, the conservative-leaning Le Figaro called the French military advance, an "inevitable intervention," arguing that without it Mali would become a harbor for Islamic extremism and base for terrorist groups looking to attack France and European neighbors. On the opinion page of Le Monde, the editorial began by wondering aloud about France's reason for intervening. Though ultimately supportive of the action, the editorial concedes that though countries "know how to start military intervention…you never know how they end."
It is hard to read the editorials on the French intervention and not think of the war in Afghanistan. The two theatres are vastly different, but the longest war in American history is cited by the French press in its cautious support of the intervention in Mali. Even with the strong initial advance of French troops in their mission to eradicate the various armed groups and restore stability to Mali, the leading editorials noted that the full nature of the conflict was yet to be seen. As Le Monde pointed out, "This adventure…the Americans call 'nation building' is the most dangerous of all, it is rarely successful."
For the first year of his presidency, Hollande's domestic challenges found him little praise in the press. His social and economic policies have encountered fierce opposition. Now, the same opinion pages that labeled Hollande ineffective at home are praising his decision to intervene abroad.
France's intervention in Mali is sure to test both the press and the president and opinions may well shift as the conflict wears on. It is a tenuous relationship, but one every democracy needs. At this year's voeux, Hollande told the journalists in attendance, "A good year for the press can also be a good year for the president of the Republic." For the French public—let us hope so.