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…