01/15/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

The Once and Present Ally: France


On the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, not far from the Place de la Concorde, lies the Cercle interallié, one of a string of dazzling buildings, with extended gardens, that include the British Ambassador's residence, the American Ambassador's residence, and the Élysée Palace itself, the seat of the French Presidency.

The Cercle interallié is a capacious and posh club that emerged in the aftermath of World War I to commemorate the tripartite (hence "interallié) alliance that won what was then known as the Great War: the U.S., the UK and France. World War I represented a renewal of the French-American alliance that had been exemplified by French support to the colonists in the Revolutionary War.

In between, the relationship had not always been a happy one, with each side, more often than not, disdaining the other. French folklore, for example, persisted in the notion that American animals were stunted. Napoleon III violated the Monroe Doctrine by trying to place a European royal on the throne of Mexico, only to see his designee executed, a misadventure second only to the emperor getting tricked by Chancellor Bismarck into the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 -- a moment when the French woke up for the first time to the fact that they couldn't stand alone against the Germans. This apprehension lasted even after World War I when the French, with the best army in the world, were not any happier about a German threat in the future.

The tripartite alliance fell apart with the crushing defeat of the French Army in 1940. Thanks to the action of the bloody-minded, albeit prescient, Charles de Gaulle, France returned after the war to the trappings, if not the reality, of its tripartite status, always failing to be treated by the U.S. on the same plane as Britain. Charles de Gaulle broke away from this unpalatable status by leaving the NATO integrated command in 1966 and by being instrumental in making the country a nuclear power.

When the new, and pro-American, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, returned France to the NATO integrated command in the spring of 2009, a number of prominent French figures stated their reservations, the most articulate of whom was the former French foreign minister under François Mitterrand, Hubert Védrine.

Much later, and more recently, in a report submitted to President François Hollande on Nov. 12, 2012, Védrine stated that although de Gaulle had been right in 1966, the world had changed since. And the United States, especially with the reelection of Barack Obama, had changed. The Americans now want an increased military role for the Europeans. "A French re-departure from the integrated command is not an option," Védrine wrote.

The new dispensation seems to be working well. The French and the British were at the point in the Libyan operation in the spring of 2011, with the Americans "leading from behind" but in an indispensable supporting role.

Now the French have intervened in Mali, to protect their important expatriate presence in Bamako (6,000) and elsewhere in that region of former French colonies. The British have offered their support in the form of two C-17 transport planes, and the Americans are to provide intelligence and other support. Even the Germans, who stayed out of the Libyan operation, are expected to provide support as well.

Long live the spirit of the Cercle interallié!