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Under siege at home, the French president gets tough on the world stage.
LISBON, Portugal — Although the French still eat cheese, as President Francois Hollande orders troops into one of the world's most dangerous hotspots once again, it’s worth remembering that another of their culinary favorites is about as red meat as you can get: the raw beef dish steak tartare.
Now Hollande is sending troops into the chaos that is the Central African Republic (CAR).
The new gung-ho France seems to have well and truly buried the "cheese-eating surrender monkey" tag invented by The Simpsons later taken up with glee by American hawks during the Iraq War.
Reports from the Central African Republic say planes loaded with troops and equipment for a beefed up French force are flying into the airport of the capital Bangui, a haven already protected by a detachment of infanterie de marine in a country engulfed in violence.
Hollande's decision last week to deploy around 1,000 extra troops to join the garrison of 400 currently in the former French colony comes as human rights campaigners warn the country is on the verge of genocide after a year of mayhem triggered by a Muslim rebel uprising.
"France is taking its responsibilities ... because we are aware of the risks that can come from this, the dangers that such a situation holds," Hollande told reporters on Thursday. "We must be there, at our post."
The CAR mission comes after a rapid French military intervention in January turned back an offensive by Islamist insurgents who threatened to take control in Mali. Almost 3,000 French troops remain in that former French colony in West Africa, supporting local forces and UN peacekeepers.
Last September, Hollande was also on the brink of launching airstrikes on Syria.
While a newly peacenik British parliament vetoed Prime Minister David Cameron's plans to intervene alongside the Americans, Hollande used his executive powers decisively. He reportedly had a squadron of missile-laden Rafale fighter jets preparing for takeoff only to abort the raid after President Barack Obama decided to delay US military action and pursue a diplomatic solution.
Beyond the military actions, Hollande has generally been strutting his stuff on the diplomatic front, raising France's profile as a significant international player even as he struggles with economic uncertainty, political unrest and plummeting popularity at home.
Last month, the French leader received a standing ovation in the Israeli Knesset after promising a tough line on Iran's nuclear program and urging a two-state compromise with the Palestinians.
Hollande followed that up by playing hardball in international negotiations that led to the Nov. 24 deal with Iran. French demands for tighter controls on Iran's nuclear activities had threatened to derail the talks early in the month, but were eventually incorporated into the landmark agreement.
Hollande's aggressive foreign policy has served to remind the world that France remains continental Europe's preeminent military and diplomatic power even as the financial and debt crisis have highlighted its economic eclipse by Germany.
His reputation for resolute action on the world stage stands in stark contrast to his domestic dithering, which has failed to get the economy out of its deep hole.
Although October saw the first fall in France's jobless rate in 30 months, many doubt Hollande can keep his much publicized promise to reverse the rising trend of job losses by the end of this year. At 10.9 percent, unemployment is double Germany's level and still close to September's all-time record of 3.29 million jobless.
Third-quarter figures showed the French economy contracted by 0.1 percent. Last month, European Union headquarters warned that Paris risked missing deadlines for reducing a budget deficit currently running at 4.1 percent of gross domestic product.
Hollande faces criticism for caving to pressure from labor unions and the left wing of his Socialist Party by failing to push through austerity measures and economic reforms to free up the economy. The rating agency Standard and Poor's cut France's credit rating a notch last month from AA+ to AA.
When Hollande has tried to push through reforms, he’s run into steadfast opposition in a country deeply attached to its generous labor protection and social welfare system.
Plans for an "ecotax" on trucks designed to increase government revenues by over $1 billion while encouraging freighters to use less polluting railways triggered a revolt. Tuckers have blocked roads and destroyed new freeway toll sensors. Their supporters have called mass demonstrations.
Taken by surprise by the strength of the opposition, Hollande quickly backed down, announcing the suspension — but not the abolition — of the tax. That failed to quell the unrest.
Much of the agitation is focused in the western region of Brittany, where protesters have taken to wearing the red bonnets once sported by rebels against the monarchy before the French Revolution.
"France is back in 1788," said Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Left Party, referring to the year before the Revolution.
"The tax system is rejected by everybody," he told the daily newspaper Le Parisien in an interview published Sunday. "The government has to understand ... that it is facing a country that is suffering, with millions of people in debt at the start of every month. There's a terrible social despair."
Polls show Melenchon — who was leading a "tax revolution" march of several thousand in Paris on Sunday — has an approval rating of 31 percent among voters. That puts the far-left leader neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen leader of the far right. Both are well ahead of Hollande, who scored just 21 percent — a record low for a sitting French president.
Critics have predictably accused Hollande of launching the Central African mission in an attempt to boost his flagging popularity.
The successful Mali operation briefly raised the president's ratings a point or two, but for French voters it will be l'economie, stupide that decides his fate in two key electoral tests next year: nationwide city hall elections in March and May's vote for the European Parliament.
Hollande says France is obliged to intervene in CAR, just as in Mali, to prevent an Islamist takeover that could pose a wider international threat. And as in Mali, the French are angered by the lack of foreign support for action they see as crucial.
"The international community can’t allow us to take this responsibility alone," Hollande said last week. "I want Europe to be at our side, in fact I'm calling for that."
So far, there’s little sign that other Europeans are prepared to become involved. In Mali, France's European Union partners eventually agreed to join in a training mission for local forces only after French troops had beaten back the insurgents.
"The French do see francophone Africa as their responsibility and as their security backyard, but what this really tells us about is the other Europeans," says Giles Merritt, director of the Security and Defense Agenda, a think tank in Brussels. "The French thought that their Mali operation was going to be significantly backed by Europeans, and it wasn't — they were left to get on with it on their own, and it looks to be the same story with the Central African Republic."
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Even if they were willing, years of defense cuts have left few EU nations with the military muscle to significantly intervene in such far-flung operations beyond contributions they’re already making in Afghanistan.
With budgets tight, expectations are low that an EU summit focused on defense later this month will do much to turn around the continent's military decline.
Among EU countries in NATO, France, Britain and Greece were alone in meeting the North Atlantic alliance's target of spending more than 2 percent of GDP on defense last year. That means France will continue to be called upon to act as Europe's international gendarme.
"Hollande needs to be given credit," says Merritt. "France is playing a much more important role on security, especially in the Sahal, than anybody else in Europe and they are doing it not just out of a post-colonial reflex, but because they understand that this is a dangerous, volatile situation. He deserves support from the other European leaders."