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« Le Temps des cheépards », a look back at more than half a century of French military interventions

Delivered. No other country, except the United States, has carried out as many foreign military interventions over the past sixty years as France. There are some 32 of them of importance, that is to say mobilizing more than 1,000 soldiers, or, on a smaller scale, marked by fighting and losses. In all, more than 120 in 17 different theaters of operations. But neither the resources available to the French armed forces nor their size are those of their counterparts across the Atlantic. Hence permanent overexposure.

« French soldiers are the most in demand in the world, nomadic fighters constantly jumping from one point of the globe to another in a sort of world war in pieces in the service of the interests of France and especially of its status as a power » , writes Michel Goya, former officer of the naval troops and historian, who analyzes more than half a century of expeditions, wars, anti-terrorist operations, interposition missions, carried out by the French forces alone or in coalition. The monument to those killed in external operations (« opex ») since the end of the Algerian war had, at its inauguration, on November 11, 2019 in Paris, 549 names, an average of just under ten per year .

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Unique in Europe, this interventionism has never really been debated. « Even though the France of the Ve Republic has not stopped launching its soldiers all over the world, nobody really apprehended that we have thus become a nation in permanent military engagement ”, notes Michel Goya. Engaging professional soldiers, the « opex » have never aroused any real opposition in an opinion widely convinced that France has a universal mission and must remain present in world affairs.

If the French presidents ask their armed forces so much, it is first of all because it is easy. According to the 1958 Constitution, article 35, it is theoretically for Parliament to declare war. He never did, contenting himself at best to approve the decision of the Head of State whose « reserved area » has only grown, especially with the nuclear strike force. « Everything depends on a single head, which gives birth, from the start of the Ve Republic, to a particular art of war ”, underlines the author.

Weakness of means

This « France’s little world war », as Michel Goya calls it, had never been treated in this form until now. The exercise is a challenge due to the extent of the period covered, the variety of theaters involved, from Africa to the Middle East or the Balkans, and the geopolitical dimension. The first of the interventions mentioned is that of Bizerte, in Tunisia, in July 1961, on the orders of De Gaulle, to clear a French base besieged by the young Tunisian army.

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