De Gaulle, He Ain’t Nicolas Sarkozy’s misguided quest for glory in Libya.

March 24, 2011

Foreign Policy:

The Libyan uprising has given French President Nicolas Sarkozy an opportunity he has long coveted: to lead a risky international mission that holds out promise of ultimate glory. For Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic, the pursuit of what the French call la grandeurwas the primary raison d’être of a head of state. His successors have by and large shared the general’s view, tenaciously defending French national interests and independence.

Sarkozy’s idea of grandeur differs from de Gaulle’s or Mitterrand’s, however. The two former presidents saw themselves as students of history, men with long views of the national interest. Sarkozy is a creature of the moment who has always lived by the daily news cycle. Risk quickens his pulse and whets his appetite. He first came to prominence as mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly, when a madman with a bomb held a preschool classroom hostage. Sarkozy entered the room, talked the bomber into surrendering, and emerged to waiting cameras with a child in his arms. Crisis is his element.

In the crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, for example, Sarkozy, who then occupied the rotating presidency of the European Union, inserted himself into the center of the conflict and, in a whirlwind of shuttle diplomacy, persuaded the Russians not to make good on their threat to overthrow the Georgian government. His penchant for taking risks has not always paid off, however. Before he became Muammar al-Qaddafi’s nemesis, he tried to reintegrate the colonel into the international community by inviting him to Paris in December 2007. This gesture drew criticism from Sarkozy’s own secretary of state for human rights and proved to be an embarrassment because of Qaddafi’s erratic behavior. Worse, it was probably quid pro quo for Qaddafi’s agreement earlier that year to release Bulgarian nurses he had been holding prisoner. Qaddafi also extracted other tribute from France in return for this favor, including a promise to sell Libya €100 million of weapons and build a nuclear power plant in the country. Despite these overtures, the Libyan leader  later refused to join the Union for the Mediterranean, a pet project of Sarkozy’s, on the grounds that it would wreck “the unity of the Arab League.” If Qaddafi disappointed Sarkozy, the Arab League must surely have disappointed Qaddafi by joining the current action against him.

Of course the French president had motives other than disappointment for urging decisive action against the Libyan dictator. Sarkozy likes to stress the humanitarian motive, which is perfectly legitimate, and “shared democratic values,” which the rebels may or may not in fact hold. But he also hoped to draw a veil over earlier disarray in his government’s response to the “Arab spring.” When demonstrators in Tunis faced the armed forces of another dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie proposed sending French riot police to Tunisia to help train their Tunisian counterparts in crowd-control techniques. She also vacationed in Tunisia in the rebellion’s early days and accepted transportation on the private jet of a Ben Ali crony with whom her elderly parents had entered into a business deal.

These revelations eventually forced Alliot-Marie’s resignation and led to the appointment of Alain Juppé, a man of vast experience as well as an old rival of Sarkozy, as foreign minister. But the president then stunned Juppé by deciding to recognize the rebels and bomb Libyan airfields while his foreign minister was in Brussels, negotiating with European partners. Juppé had not been told of this decision in advance and was visibly dumbfounded when informed by reporters. To add insult to injury, the announcement of France’s policy was made on the steps of the Élysée Palace by the playboy philosopher and gadabout humanitarian Bernard-Henri Lévy, an acquaintance of Sarkozy who had developed his own private contacts in the rebel camp. Juppé reportedly threatened to resign over this affront to his authority, but to date he remains in his post.

Sarkozy also faces a tough fight for reelection in 2012. His approval rating is at its nadir, around 25 percent. Several recent polls have shown him running third, behind Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, and any of several possible Socialist candidates. And in cantonal elections held this past weekend, as the military action in Libya was unfolding, the president’s party took a shellacking. In such circumstances, a leader who takes his country to war will always be suspected of seeking advantage at the polls. Yet there has been no discernible surge of support for the president since French jets first took off for Libya a few days ago…

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