France has taken a robust and assertive role in the action against Libya. The military action against Libya given approval by U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 began, allowed the coalition to what whatever possible in defense of the civilians in Libya. French President Sarkozy said, “If we intervene on the side of the Arab nations it is because of a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes.” The one question that many raised was why the French government took the lead?
This is mainly due to a few factors with French domestic politics and France’s history, interests in Africa. First on the domestic front. With his popularity at a record low and facing a presidential election next year, Nicolas Sarkozy is in desperate need of a boost to his political stature both at home and abroad.
With polls showing that Sarkozy is the least popular president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he is betting that French voters will appreciate his efforts in Libya to place France at the center of the world stage and reinforce what Charles de Gaulle once famously called “a certain idea of France” as a nation of exceptional destiny.
In any case, Sarkozy’s main rival is not Gaddafi, but rather Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new leader of the far-right National Front party in France. A new opinion poll published by the Le Parisien newspaper on March 8 has Le Pen, who took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January, winning the first round of next year’s presidential election.
Le Pen, who appeals to middle class voters, is riding high on voter dissatisfaction over the failure of the mainstream parties to address the problem of Muslim immigration. Since taking her post three months ago, Le Pen has single-handedly catapulted the twin issues of Muslim immigration and French national identity to the top of the French political agenda, and in recent weeks, Le Pen has been a permanent fixture on French prime-time television to discuss the threat to France of a wave of immigrants from Libya.
The crisis in Libya provided that unique opportunity to get rid of the image of a sinking reactive presidency. On taking action in Libya, he said that France had “decided to assume its role before history” in stopping Gaddafi’s “killing spree” against people whose only crime was to seek to “liberate themselves from servitude”. “Libyans wanting nothing else but the right to decide their own future find themselves in danger of death. We have a duty to respond to their anguished call,” he said.
When he summoned world leaders to an emergency war council at the Elysée Palace to agree on military action against Muammar Gaddafi last week, his 20 guests had barely come to an agreement when Sarkozy announced French planes were in the air – and had been for some hours – preparing to strike Libyan targets. President Sarkozy taking charge was also in sharp contrast to his predecessor Jacques Chirac who was in opposition to the UN resolution on military action in Iraq, and joining along with the United States in going to war, were as Sarkozy lead in the effort to military action against Libya through the United Nations.
Prior to sending in the French air force to enforce the no-fly-zone, France became the first and only nation to recognize the rebels as the “legitimate representatives” of the Libyan people. Critics and cynics rightly pointed out that Sarkozy was desperate to atone for France’s incompetent handling of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. This was in effort to erase in peoples minds the image of when he welcomed Gaddafi with open arms three years ago, with a red carpet and bringing half the capital to a standstill and allowing the Libyan leader to pitch his bedouin tent near the Elysée.
Across North and West Africa, France has long coveted its ties with its former colonies in Africa as its influence waned elsewhere, clinging to them as a sign of prestige and as part of the Gaullist doctrine that dominated French foreign policy for the latter half of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century, France is finding that its position as patron to Third World countries is becoming untenable due to the increasingly unacceptable political, economic and security-related situations in many of these countries. It is becoming clear day by day that France will need Africa more than Africa will need France in the future.
France’s consistent offers of military and economic support to the embattled leaders of these countries may now be withdrawn as Sarkozy tightens France’s sphere of influence. He is now focusing on the area around the Mediterranean where France’s core interests lie, including the former colonies of Lebanon and Algeria, where much of France’s non-European population hails from and where France’s colonial ties run deepest.
Gradually over the years, Paris has been reducing its presence in Africa in the political, military and humanitarian spheres. Defence contracts and their secret clauses have been progressively renegotiated. The African continent is also no longer dependent on French funding, once a main source of influence. It now receives significant sums from the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner.
The French military prepares for and launches their first Libyan operation in which an an AWACS reconnaissance plane and four attack aircraft took off for Libya.
Threatened by Le Pen’s rising popularity, and in urgent need of a political boost, Sarkozy is now using the Libya intervention both to play the role of the respected statesman on the international stage and to address French concerns over mass immigration from North Africa.