Brian Stewart: Europe's army? Guess what, it's the French
France's military has sharp uniforms, mystique and a score of quiet successes. They eat well, too
I've always been interested in the French army's ability to speed elite forces into foreign operations with a unique blend of stylish panache and secrecy.
You'll have seen the latest example in France's current operation in Mali against al-Qaeda linked insurgents who, back in January, were threatening to take over the beleaguered sub-Sahara nation.
There, in quick sequence, you had sharply tailored French units arriving and the world's media given brief photo-ops of the first moves toward combat in the country's rugged north.
Malians seemed grateful, the UN approved, French pride soared.
It was an impressive display. Then, right on cue, the curtain of secrecy slammed down.
The troops disappeared by armoured convoys or helicopter off to do serious war in the vast northern region of desert and rugged hills, and the gathered media were shooed away (one can imagine the gestures).
France's best units — and they are among the world's very best — like to fight hard and unseen.
It's an attitude Paris strongly endorses, feeling the U.S., the U.K. and Canada are mugs to allow embedded reporters up front where the fighting is. Where the dead and dying might be seen.
France has largely banned nearly all media from its combat zones. So, at the moment, a grim guerrilla war is being waged in Mali by up to 4,000 French troops, accompanied by African partners, and we read or see almost nothing of it.
Once again the French have proven themselves to have that damned elusive Scarlet Pimpernel of armies. You seek it here, you seek it there …
French foreign correspondents are daring and inventive, but neither they nor others keen to cover this war have been able to penetrate the cordon sanitaire that France imposes around its combat operations.
"The French authorities … have achieved their 'zero image of the war front' by strictly controlling access to information," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders conceded recently.
And I know their frustration, having tried unsuccessfully over several decades to cover French units in action.
In the Gulf War of 1990-91 France managed to put a whole division into action — far out in the desert away from the media. When reporters went searching for French units, the brush-off was brusque and memorable.
This traditional secrecy of course serves France's strategic purpose.
Paris seeks to continue to play the role of a serious middle power, and it knows that if it is to be successful, it must be able to project power beyond Europe, especially into Africa where it has long-standing economic, diplomatic and cultural interests.
In doing so, it makes a virtue of necessity.
Having neither the resources nor will to mobilize U.S.-style big units and "shock and awe" tactics, it has specialized in operations that are slimmed down to the core, swift in deployment and super-sensitive to image.
It's hard to imagine war being waged discreetly. But, in Mali, Paris knows the last thing it needs is to upset feelings across the arc of Islamic nations from North Africa through to Pakistan.
Therefore it will do anything it can to avoid images of Muslim fighters being killed by French Paras or Legionnaires.
What is also extraordinary about the French military is how many times it has gone into foreign operations under similar stealth — more than a dozen places in two decades, by my count.
Yes, Rwanda in 1994 was disaster, but other operations in places like the Balkans, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Haiti and even Afghanistan were carried out with relatively little controversy aimed at France.
Fellow Europeans are often baffled by the ability of Paris to intervene in so many places militarily with so little international fuss being made.
The Czech newspaper Lidové noviny has suggested that the French are able to fight to preserve their economic interests abroad and to showcase their power, because both left- and right-wing parties there are comfortable with military action
As for Mali, the paper adds: "Nobody has ever protested it. If the United States intervened in such a manner, there would be an endless sequence of protests in Europe; U.S. embassies would see angry diplomats coming through their doors, starting with French ones."
But in fairness France takes more care than the U.S. does when it comes to operating within a general world consensus. It likes to feel truly wanted.
In Mali, Paris sought full UN backing and agreement from African nations beforehand. And then it quickly brought Western allies along for support, as in the shamelessly borrowed Canadian, U.K. and U.S. airlifts.
It's like a diva that demands a large supporting cast.
France also took a bold lead in bombing Libya in March 2011 during the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi. But there, too, it was careful to line up diplomatic support first, which included quiet Arab acquiescence.
The Americans usually snipe at the French, but military circles are now quick to praise French boldness and to offer extensive support when asked.
Washington knows that now only the British, among NATO's European members, can remotely match France's willingness to send a serious military force abroad.
The rest of Europe is so averse to such international operations that some have taken to viewing the splendid looking troops that still march with swagger down Paris's Champs-Elysee every July 14 as "Europe's Army."
Even China seems fascinated with France's ability to continue as a global power.
One study from Shanghai International Studies University notes many nations still see France as "the sentry box in the backyard," thanks to its highly professional military that still operates bases and outposts from Kosovo to French Guyana, and as far away as the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Despite hard economic times the French continue out there in force, up to 30,000 troops abroad at any time, and can act when French interests are at stake with both speed and stealth.
It's quite a rare trick these days and, like any good magician, Paris makes sure we glimpse the panache while never getting a peep behind the secret curtain.