As the French comic, Coluche, said about what he wished for himself, Nelson Mandela was alive when he died. And, as King Henry III said of the Duke of Guise, death made him even greater than he had been in life. What accounts for that greatness? What does it take to become a global icon, one mourned by the entire planet, one whose incalculable legacy many have already rushed in to claim? A mixture of style and conviction. Doses of martyrdom and hope. A choice to forgive crossed with the fierce determination to forget nothing of the unrightable wrongs done to his people. Impeccable moral rigor. An instinct for symbolism and for gesture that impelled Mandela to appear at his last trial draped in the leopard skin of the traditional Xhosa kings. His way, in matters of faith, of renouncing nothing -- not the Xhosa initiation, not his Methodism, not even that secular religion known as Marxism, with which he remained imbued all his life. Guilt, as well. Our guilt, as westerners, for our overlong acceptance of apartheid, the principle of which we now claim always to have detested. Our responsibility, yes, for all the possible Mandelas, the Mandelas stillborn, those broken by colonial violence, those who never emerged from the jails. And, finally, a great struggle linked to a great idea that guided his life and the lives of millions of people who walked with him and after him. What is an idée fixe? It is not a simple idea. It is, as Paul Valéry said in his eponymous dialogue, an idée implexe, a term invented by Valéry to denote that which is implicit, virtual, but possible, an immanent reality ready to be brought forth by circumstances. An idea that takes form not in flesh but in the world. It takes centuries to make a saint. The secular canonization of Nelson Mandela occurred in a blink, a heartbeat.
François Hollande has gone to war. And once again he has done it in strict observance both of international law and of the Thomist theory of the just war. His action is a fresh victory for the duty to intervene. A new illustration of the responsibility to protect that our country pioneered and whose colors it continues to hold high, even if it sometimes has to act alone. And France's action in the Central African Republic is indeed, contrary to the grumblings that have already begun, a noble act, one that, far from perpetuating colonial impulses, dispels them. More than three decades after the coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the symbol of Françafrique, France continues to pay off its debt. As it has in Mali, as it did in Hollande's speech in Bamako, as it has done in the negotiations with Iran and tried to do in the strong stance on Syria nobly taken and then reluctantly relinquished, and, above all, as it did in Libya, where an insane dictator had threatened to drown his people in rivers of blood -- in all these instances France has surprised the world while remaining true to her best traditions. I am in the United States during the first days of an operation that is, by definition, uncertain and risky. Seen from here, through the prism of the new isolationism of an America that more and more often now shrinks from its democratic duty, the French case, the case of a middle-rung power that, over the years, has become a great power in the realm of ideas, seems all the more remarkable: From the political establishment to intellectual circles, from the allies of Senator McCain to those liberals that even Europeans would recognize as being on the left, everyone applauds the nation that, when a massacre looms, or even when it has already begun, as it had around the church of Our Lady of Africa in Bangui, comes to the aid of a civilian population threatened with mass violence.
Chance had it that Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan was in Paris recently to see several old friends who, led by Nicolas Sarkozy, stood by him on his journey from Benghazi to Tripoli and from dissidence to leadership. I asked him about his abduction on October 10 from the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. He told me that when the kidnappers burst into his room, he ordered his bodyguards not to use their weapons. In this and in his demeanor during our visit, I found him completely unchanged, cheerful and calm, jocular and determined, still endowed, above all, with that calm courage that never deserted him in any of the often-dangerous situations in which we found ourselves in our ten months of slogging through the trenches of Ajdabiya and the ruins of Misrata, through the Jebel Nafusa mountains and in Tripoli's Green Square while it was still in the sights of the last of Gaddafi's snipers. What, I ask him, do you make of the apocalyptic terms that some of us westerners seem bent on using when discussing Libya? How is the country doing, Ali? Not too bad, he answers. Step by step, stone by stone, in the desert left by 40 years of Gaddafi's rule, a civil society is taking shape, a government of law is feeling its way and gathering strength, while the women of Benghazi take to the streets to demand that the murderous militias be disarmed. It's true. History has returned to a land that had diverged from it. A new battle, a fierce one, rages between fundamentalists and moderates, between terrorists and enlightened Muslims. And the nation has a prime minister who, unlike any other of the so-called Arab Spring countries, spent most of his life at the head of a branch of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), where he learned the real meaning of democracy. That's where things stand. And, for that reason, Libya is the one among the Arab countries that threw off their dictators that most deserves our sympathy and support.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy