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Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2011-04-08

Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed France from one-time vociferous pacifist to one of the West's eagerest warmongers. He says his actions are in the name of democracy, but political analysts believe those same actions could come back to haunt him.

In January this year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy told a roomful of journalists: “A colonial power – even after several decades – is never justified in making a judgment on the internal affairs of its former colony – and you know it, and everybody knows it.”  

He was talking about Tunisia then. But two months later, the president has unashamedly changed tack. On Tuesday night, French forces attacked the presidential palace of another of its former colonies, Ivory Coast.  

The operation is part of a UN peacekeeping mission – to which, according to Ban Ki-moon, President Sarkozy “responded positively”. The Elysee Palace released a statement Monday insisting that the operation was intended to “neutralise” heavy weapons belonging to troops loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo - who refuses to give up the presidency to internationally recognised election winner Alassane Ouattara.

The mission came just after France joined a coalition of armed forces against the Gaddafi regime in Libya (a former Italian colony). But that itself followed a dire diplomatic start to the year, after which France was criticised for dithering over Tunisia and Egypt, as the masses fought for democracy there.

Ulterior motive?
With Sarkozy’s approval ratings at an all-time low just a year before the next presidential election, some of his opponents have suggested that the French president’s enthusiasm for war could be part of a strategy to boost his dwindling reputation.
In an interview with the New York Times, opposition member Didier Mathus said that Sarkozy “would declare a war every week” if he could, in order to stir up patriotism and boost his ratings.
 “I think it’s possible to say that’s he’s acting with the presidential election in mind,” Douglas Yates, a Paris-based researcher specialised in France-Africa relations, told FRANCE 24. “But he may also have been thinking about his international reputation. It’s clear that he was very embarrassed by the series of diplomatic failures in North Africa earlier this year.”
If Sarkozy is hoping to benefit from the “rally round the flag” syndrome, his strategy has yet to bring home any results. While approximately two-thirds of French people say they approve of France’s intervention in Libya, the president probably shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for news about his personal popularity boost.
“I don’t think it will improve his ratings,” says François Nectoux, a researcher in French international relations at Kingston University, London. “Even if it does, it will only be short-lived.”
Changing places
Nonetheless, the Sarkozy government was already taking credit for the situation in Ivory Coast before Gbagbo had even been deposed. On Tuesday, Prime Minister François Fillon told parliament that “France can be proud to have participated in the defence and expression of democracy in Ivory Coast.”

Nectoux believes that popularity at the polls is a supplementary advantage of waging war. “It’s not Sarkozy’s main objective,” he told FRANCE 24. “France wants to be seen as part of the goodies – the UN, the EU, the coalition in Libya – it wants to be seen at the front line fighting for human rights etc, not as a neo-colonialist”.

This is the same France that was resolute in its disapproval of the US-led invasion of Iraq eight years ago. Today, while Sarkozy strikes a gung-ho attitude to war, US President Barack Obama is being quietly congratulated for his prudence.

“France and the USA have swapped positions when it comes to going to war,” says Nectoux. “Like there was in Iraq, there is also a lot of trouble to come in both Ivory Coast and Libya, even once Gbagbo and Gaddafi have been gotten rid of. If a lot of civilians are killed, then Sarkozy will suffer, and massively.”

Date created : 2011-04-06


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