But the Sarkozy playbook offered Hollande some invigorating options. With his dramatic interventions in the Ivory Coast and Libya, “Sarko” had demonstrated that, for all the political misery in Europe and the gloomy talk of decline so popular in Paris, France remains a vital political, military, and moral power—if it chooses to be. Mali offered Hollande the chance to show that he was more than marking time in the Élysée. That he too was capable of projecting French power overseas. …

Nonetheless, the operation has underscored France’s special role. Former lieutenant general Jean-Patrick Gaviard, who served as head of France’s Air Defense and Air Operations and senior adviser to the minister of Defense, says that it is important to remember that “France sees itself as both a European and Mediterranean power.” There are very different reasons why France has intervened militarily in Libya and Mali, and diplomatically in Syria, but they boil down to “political and cultural links which are old, strong, and enduring.” He says that any fears France is asserting its power against the interests of Europe and the United States are a joke. “Do our American friends need allies who worry that they don’t have the legitimacy to take action? The Atlantic alliance must depend on a fair division of labor.” …

But what cannot be doubted is that France has shown itself willing to act at moments when its global peers have not. Its planes, helicopters, and paratroopers have become the steel tip in the emerging battle for democracy and stability in Africa.