Jacques Chirac, the former French president who opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, once said that “war always means failure”. With French forces engaged in three theatres – Afghanistan, Libya and now the Ivory Coast, his successor and one-time adversary, Nicolas Sarkozy, is hoping to prove him wrong.

President Sarkozy this week authorised French troops to take sides in the fierce fighting between Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of last November’s presidential election in the former French colony, and the reluctant outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo.

The military operation is France’s second on the African continent in less than a month, leaving many to wonder whether this signals a new, more interventionist policy to rid the continent of unpalatable dictators.

True, French forces only intervened in Ivory Coast at the request of the UN, in accordance with a Security Council resolution that allows action to protect civilians facing the threat of attack.

But aerial strikes on the presidential palace and the national television station can hardly be described as taking out heavy artillery. There can be no doubt that the French attacks went beyond the principle of “responsibility to protect” and were aimed at helping to oust Mr Gbagbo and install Mr Ouattara in his rightful place.

Intervention in Libya seems to have the same aim. France – like its coalition allies – insists protection of civilians, and not regime change, is the goal. But France, also like its allies, insists Muammer Gaddafi must go. The contradictions are hard to ignore, even if few would dispute the justice of the action.

But it would be wrong to see these two military operations as a sign of a new French policy.

The desire to act in Libya was in part the antidote to France’s clumsy handling of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where it favoured stability over democracy, say diplomatic insiders. France will not make that mistake again, they insist, though critics rightly ask what the choice will be in countries such as Syria or Gabon if things get seriously out of hand.

In the Ivory Coast, however, France did everything it could to stay out of the dispute, despite having hundreds of troops on the ground and a sizeable community of some 12,000 French citizens in the country.

The reluctance to get involved stemmed from Mr Sarkozy’s plan unveiled three years ago to put France’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular with its former colonies, on a new footing.

France would no longer be the gendarme of Africa – a guarantor of public and political stability – but would base relationships on commerce and development, he claimed.

If anything the Ivory Coast situation shows just how misleading this vision was. France’s close ties with its former colony and its military presence there made it impossible to stand by while the violence escalated, as France was accused of doing in Rwanda. Its international credibility was at stake, especially given Mr Sarkozy’s passionate arguments for intervention in Libya, where historical and cultural links were much more tenuous.

But there is also the question of French interests, particularly strong in Francophone west Africa.

Vincent Bolloré, a businessman on whose yacht Mr Sarkozy celebrated his election as president, accumulated a fortune in the ports of west Africa, while Total’s oil exploration rigs are spread across the resource- rich region. If the Ivory Coast were to descend further into chaos, what signal would this send to nearby countries being courted by emerging powers such as China and Brazil?

Mr Sarkozy has found himself a prisoner of history. Established interests and relationships will determine policy, whatever the desire to modernise relations.

Meanwhile, the impression that France is intervening more overtly in African affairs is having one serious consequence. Public opinion is growing resentful of what it sees as interference by a former colonial power. And the repercussions are being felt in international bodies such as the UN, according to some diplomats. This makes it all the more urgent that Mr Sarkozy should clearly set out the limits of his foreign policy – and stick to them.

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