In French, the word "Mistral" has usually carried two associations. Most people know "le Mistral" as the strong wind that periodically sweeps down the Rhône Valley and into the Mediterranean, often heralding a change of season. The wind is actually named after a frequently overlooked French writer, Frédéric Mistral, an expert on the Provençal dialect and the winner of the 1904 Nobel Prize in literature.
Today, the "Mistral" is also known globally as the French amphibious assault warship, two of which were commissioned for 1.2 billion euros by Russia in 2011 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. These sophisticated vessels, among other things, serve as helicopter carriers that, if delivered, will provide Vladimir Putin's Russia with a formidable new military capacity.
Since Putin's annexation of Crimea and his obstruction in Eastern Ukraine, France has still moved ahead to satisfy its contract with Russia. Several hundred Russian engineers and naval personnel are now in Saint-Nazaire, France, receiving lessons on how to use the ship, ironically christened "Sebastopol," a Crimean seaport. Final delivery is scheduled for later this autumn. A second warship, the "Vladivostok," is still being built for 2016 delivery.
The French economy -- with unemployment above 10 percent and weak economic growth -- surely needs the revenue from these military sales. At the same time, French president Hollande has shown a willingness to take courageous and principled foreign-policy stands on Mali and Syria. He should take a similar strong position now and cancel the sales to Russia.
Instead, President Hollande -- much as he did last year in the case of a young girl who was a Roma immigrant -- has tried to split the issue down the middle like Solomon. He announced that the 15-year-old girl, after having initially been expelled, could remain in France -- but without her parents: an impractical solution that made few people happy. Now he proposes to allow the first "Mistral" to proceed but threatens to block the second sale unless Putin changes course on the Ukraine.
The arguments for "sanctity of contract" must be weighed against the arguments for respecting international law, the sovereign borders of independent nations (e.g., the 1994 Budapest Memorandum between Russia and Ukraine declaring Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence), and the human rights of the hundreds of innocent people killed directly or indirectly because of Putin's behavior as an international outlaw.
Surely there must be a way to sell or lease these boats to NATO or to another country. Let the Russians file a lawsuit. If an underlying concern is a cutoff of Russian natural gas during a cold European winter, then so be it. There are at least four months before the chill sets in -- enough time to find other oil and natural gas suppliers. Moreover, with sanctions increasing against the Russian economy, declining oil and natural gas sales will only add to the pressure on Putin's regime.
France should not stand alone in a commercial confrontation with Russia. Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among other nations, should ratchet up their sanctions, cancel important contracts with Russia, and provide direct financial assistance to the Ukranian government.
The late Eric Hoffer -- author, philosopher and longshoreman -- was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal about Israel in May 1968. He cited Sweden, which was then threatening to end diplomatic relations with the United States because of our efforts in Vietnam. He observed that Sweden "did not let out a peep when Hitler was slaughtering Jews. They sent Hitler choice iron ore and ball bearings and serviced his troop trains to Norway."
Small actions often portend larger consequences. François Hollande has stood strongly on principle before. As Margaret Thatcher once said in another context to George H.W. Bush, "Remember George, this is no time to go wobbly."
Charles Kolb, a Lumina Foundation Fellow, is President of the French-American Foundation--United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990 - 1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986 - 1990. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.