Sarkozy has overturned 50 years of French reluctance to fight in western coalitionsby Tim King / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
In friendlier times: Sarkozy hosts Libya’s Brother Leader in Paris, 2007
In March, even when it seemed that the rebels in Libya would succeed in overcoming Gaddafi’s loyalists on their own, President Nicolas Sarkozy was moving heaven and earth to persuade the UN and EU to allow French military intervention. The more bellicose he became, the more his countrymen revelled. Yet in 2003, France had distinguished itself at the UN by eloquently refusing to join the coalition to invade Iraq—a stance that proved popular at the time both inside and outside of France. Why has Sarkozy turned that on its head?
A simple explanation is next year’s presidential election. Sarkozy’s position is not unlike Margaret Thatcher’s in 1982 when her first mandate was drawing to a close. Her promised reforms had not materialised, she was slumping in the polls—and then she rebounded on the back of the Falklands war. Sarkozy is perhaps hoping that a successful outcome in Libya will springboard him back into the Elysée Palace.
But there are deeper reasons, too. Ever since he became president, Sarkozy has been looking for a war to call his own—partly Bonapartist strategy to silence interior criticism, partly to bolster his country’s image. His predecessor’s high-profile refusal to fight in Iraq had been well-received by his compatriots, but resulted in France being ousted from the closed circle of “leading” nations influencing world affairs. More than anything, Sarkozy wants to put the gloire back into France. Consequently, he has sent 10,000 soldiers into active service in eleven countries, including the Côte d’Ivoire (1,700), Lebanon (1,450), Somalia, Chad (950), the Central African Republic and, of course, Afghanistan, where 4,000 French soldiers, more than twice as many as when Sarkozy arrived, are actively deployed.
He has been energetic on the diplomatic stage as well. In 2008, as president of the EU council, Sarkozy threw himself into the escalating conflict between Russia and Georgia before most people noticed it was happening, and brokered a peace deal with Russia (which was heavily criticised at the time and since). The following year he brought France back into Nato, which Charles De Gaulle had noisily left in 1966. And the military intervention in Libya is, of course, in no small part due to Sarkozy’s lobbying.
France still sees north Africa as its backyard. In 2008 Sarkozy created the Union for the Mediterranean, a sort of EU of Mediterranean countries which would be guided, tacitly, by France—as French nuclear power stations and high-speed trains mushroomed across the region, protected by French-made armaments. Sarkozy realised he could rely on former colonies to co-operate in this; the loose cannon was always Gaddafi. So one of Sarkozy’s first official invitations when freshly elected was not to George W Bush, Angela Merkel or Gordon Brown, but to Libya’s Brother Leader.
Part of his subsequent fervour to be rid of Gaddafi springs from a hasty desire to prove to north Africa’s freedom fighters that, despite appearances, France is sympathetic to them. Like other leaders across Europe, Sarkozy had spent so much time doing deals with their repressive rulers that he was caught unawares by the revolutionaries’ success in the new year. His prime minister had just returned from a pleasant Christmas as Mubarak’s guest in Egypt. His foreign secretary, who had spent Christmas in Tunisia, offered French “expertise” to help the soon-to-be-ousted President Ben Ali quieten the masses. Sarkozy needed to back-pedal—and fast. Hence not only the frantic call to arms against Gaddafi, but his determination that French planes fire the first rockets.
Has it worked? The polls show that two-thirds of Sarkozy’s countrymen are proud to watch their jets streaking across the Libyan sky, although as yet the expedition has not appreciably boosted his presidential ratings. At the recent local elections the right-wing Front National (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, stole the headlines. Like a slap in the face, the FN vote is often used by the French to shock sense into their ruling parties. A strong FN turnout in the first round of an election guarantees kneejerk horror in the media, giving the voter a sense of power and ensuring the message is heard, while true intentions tend to be kept for the second round. At a local level, it seems the FN is attractive to some voters precisely because local councillors have so little power. Most acknowledge that in national terms Le Pen’s party cannot yet provide a serious alternative—although it might now serve as a credible opposition. Many of its converts come from the working-class left, and its once-ridiculed “death to the euro” slogan does not sound quite so daft today.
For now, Sarkozy continues to make many people uneasy, even some of his own supporters. To those outside of France, the international standing of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the IMF, makes him the obvious Socialist presidential choice. Yet within the country many consider a man who is based on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, out of touch with domestic concerns. Such concerns are not so much Sarkozy’s much-trumpeted trinity of “security-immigration-Islam” as core issues like unemployment and purchasing power. Sarkozy has rightly gambled that the spectator-sport of a glorious foreign war has pushed those from many minds. But any messy, Iraq-style ending in Libya will rebound on him, pushing domestic troubles firmly back into the headlines.