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With Libya response, France takes high-stakes step into spotlight

After faltering in its response to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, France emerged as a surprisingly robust diplomatic force in dealing with the Libya crisis – even if the approach has left some people scratching their heads.


Earlier this winter, France was widely criticised for sleepwalking through popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

But only weeks later, while a crisis pitting Libyan anti-government rebels against forces loyal to the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi seemed to stump the international community, France has emerged as a surprisingly active diplomatic force.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the most vocal advocate of a no-fly zone over Libya, and France was the first Western power to recognise the Libyan opposition. Friday morning, in the wake of a UN resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces, French authorities were saying military action could be imminent.

As decisive as France has been on the Libyan front, the manner in which it emerged as leader of the interventionist camp has left some – including certain members of Sarkozy’s own cabinet – scratching their heads.

France ‘sticks its neck out’

Dismal approval ratings and a series of much-publicised French gaffes in response to the anti-regime movement in Tunisia are thought to be likely factors providing motivation for Sarkozy to appear authoritative and presidential on the international stage. French elections will take place in May 2012, and Sarkozy is thought to be eager to boost his public standing before launching a re-election campaign.

Still, certain elements of the French response have left political circles puzzled. Just one day after a senior government official stated that “France recognises states, not parties” on March 9, an announcement arrived that France would recognise the Libyan Transitional National Council (the body composed of anti-Gaddafi rebels) as “the legitimate representative of the Libyan people”. Underscoring this new stance, France would also send an ambassador to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya.

“In recognising the rebels, France stuck its neck out,” said Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University. “Especially since Sarkozy seemed not to be consulting any of his EU partners or the US on this decision.” Indeed, reports from sources close to the Elysée say newly appointed Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and other top-level French diplomats were not aware of the move in advance.

For Rogan, the decision reflects the character of the current French president. “President Sarkozy is a very unpredictable man,” Rogan noted. “He has an idiosyncratic way of doing things and can be very spontaneous.”

Risk and reward in French stance?

The French stance is especially surprising, according to Rogan, because it “doesn’t seem to be based on any pre-existing French positions in Libya”. France was “doing well with Libya before”, counting the country as a client of the French arms industry (Libya purchased French Mirage jets). “And I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there was an oil deal cut with Libya that would benefit France,” Rogan added.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy defends his decision to back Libyan rebels

Others see the French stance in a more straightforward light. As Jean Dufourcq, director of research at France’s Military Academy, said: “France follows the idea that it must intervene once a population is being attacked by its leader.”

In any case, France’s decision to recognise Libyan rebels put the country on a potentially risky diplomatic path that it has managed to navigate all the way to Thursday night’s UN resolution. “Sarkozy’s move put pressure on France to secure international support for its position,” Rogan explained. “Otherwise it would have been isolated in trying to stop Gaddafi.” The role France may or may not have played in rallying US President Barack Obama and other leaders to its cause remains unclear.

Friday afternoon, Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa announced that Libya was declaring an immediate cease-fire and stopping all military operations in line with the UN resolution. France, for its part, reacted with caution. “He [Gaddafi] is now starting to be afraid, but on the ground the threat has not changed,” a foreign ministry spokesman told reporters.

It is therefore too early to say if France’s moment in the spotlight will turn into a moment of glory.

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