In 2004, a show-stopping performance of the award winning musical Les Misérables was hosted at Windsor Castle, attended by French President Jacques Chirac, to celebrate 100 years of Franco-British partnership (alternatively, not beating each other up every few years). It goes without saying that the French and the British have had a long, complex and volatile relationship; reference here Norman Conquest, Napoleon, Charles de Gaulle and most recently the European Union. The two nations have spent a considerable amount of history either at war with, or mocking one another.
Is there an alternative?
Victor Hugo began his story about “a saint, a man, a woman and a child” in 1829. He would draw inspiration from the student revolts of 1832 and from his experience of contemporary social injustice; in 1830, the average life of a French worker’s child was just two years. In 1980, French lyricist Alain Boublil worked with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg to adapt the novel into a best-selling, heart-wrenching concept album. That same year, the French musical took to the stage in Paris. Inspired, West End success story Cameron Mackintosh worked with Herbert Kretzmer to develop an English language version, painstakingly adapting French language rhythms into the English tongue, with additional material supplied by James Fenton.
151 years after publication, Hugo’s story would be re-told on screen, singing its way to $300 million at the box office, 3 Golden Globe Awards and 9 BAFTA Nominations. It is by far the world’s most treasured musical; to date official figures report that the production has played 48,000 professional performances, giving a total audience figure of more than 60 million world-wide.
In short, Les Mis is iconic. It is also a showcase for collaboration.
On January 11th 2013, the French began ground and air intervention in Mali, in response to a push south by AQIM fighters (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The group has had a strong hold over the north of the country, where it originally won the support of the Tuareg people, although this is now waning. ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States) had prevaricated over Mali for almost a year. ECOWAS member states have now pledged around 5,000 troops all told. Western governments assisted with the provision of C-17 transport planes. More recently, British PM David Cameron has publically expressed his willingness to provide more support to France, particularly in the area of surveillance, intelligence and logistics. Current reports indicate that French and Malian troops have re-taken the historic Timbuktu, (though the safety of its precious documents and libraries are not yet confirmed).
Let’s speculate that Mali’s capital (Bamako) had been taken by AQIM. This would have provided a nice foothold for a very dangerous, very aggressive group. It should be noted however that the Sahel/Sahara is tough place from which to launch any jihad, let alone a global one; it is very hot, very remote and currently boasts less than optimal infrastructure. It is nevertheless important that Mali be supported towards a return to a more “normal” state of affairs, including amongst other things, rule of law, respect of rights and equal representation. Military intervention is not by nature designed to achieve these ends. The French leadership has been noble to an extent; with British and other European partners offering a modest, but fairly essential support (French troops and supplies would have got nowhere without the C-17s). Ultimately however, a true restoration solution for Mali should be explored with an even greater sense of collaboration. Currently, the EU has pledged 500 troops (originally only 200) for a training mission, expected to arrive mid-February. But this is not enough.
The EU’s 27 member states collectively spend $300 billion a year on military expenditure. Individually however, defence budgets are being squeezed. In 2010, the average EU as a percentage of GDP was 1.6%, against the US’s 4.6%. A key problem here is the absence of sufficient collaboration; EU member states continue to spend at a national level in an area where there is clear European added value. This is particularly the case because any EU peacekeeping force would be buoyed by the EU’s three-pronged comprehensive approach; rule of law, hard power, and financial aid. The EU also currently has the option of €230 million as ear-marked Mali aid, frozen since the military coup last year.
Greater collaboration on military terms would of course be difficult; European nations boast deeply entrenched military traditions. Moreover, this blog does not take the view that everything should be centralised in an increasing Brussels vacuum. Nevertheless, preliminary and useful Franco-British collaboration is evident in Mali, building off of the 2010 Lancaster House Agreements (Franco-British Treaty pledging greater military co-ordination and resource pooling). More of this would be excellent; but even better, would be a leveraging of the knowledge and resources of partner nations.
In Mali, 27% of children are underweight and 44% do not have access to safe drinking water. Victor Hugo’s hungry child was brought to the attention of the world through French leadership and British collaboration. Perhaps you now see what this particular analogy is driving at…