An expert's point of view on a current event.

De Gaulle, He Ain’t

Nicolas Sarkozy's misguided quest for glory in Libya.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

View a photo essay of Sarko’s grand tour here.

The Libyan uprising has given French President Nicolas Sarkozy an opportunity he has long coveted: to lead a risky international mission that holds out promise of ultimate glory. For Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic, the pursuit of what the French call la grandeur was the primary raison d’être of a head of state. His successors have by and large shared the general’s view, tenaciously defending French national interests and independence.

Sarkozy’s idea of grandeur differs from de Gaulle’s or Mitterrand’s, however. The two former presidents saw themselves as students of history, men with long views of the national interest. Sarkozy is a creature of the moment who has always lived by the daily news cycle. Risk quickens his pulse and whets his appetite. He first came to prominence as mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly, when a madman with a bomb held a preschool classroom hostage. Sarkozy entered the room, talked the bomber into surrendering, and emerged to waiting cameras with a child in his arms. Crisis is his element.

In the crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, for example, Sarkozy, who then occupied the rotating presidency of the European Union, inserted himself into the center of the conflict and, in a whirlwind of shuttle diplomacy, persuaded the Russians not to make good on their threat to overthrow the Georgian government. His penchant for taking risks has not always paid off, however. Before he became Muammar al-Qaddafi’s nemesis, he tried to reintegrate the colonel into the international community by inviting him to Paris in December 2007. This gesture drew criticism from Sarkozy’s own secretary of state for human rights and proved to be an embarrassment because of Qaddafi’s erratic behavior. Worse, it was probably quid pro quo for Qaddafi’s agreement earlier that year to release Bulgarian nurses he had been holding prisoner. Qaddafi also extracted other tribute from France in return for this favor, including a promise to sell Libya €100 million of weapons and build a nuclear power plant in the country. Despite these overtures, the Libyan leader  later refused to join the Union for the Mediterranean, a pet project of Sarkozy’s, on the grounds that it would wreck “the unity of the Arab League.” If Qaddafi disappointed Sarkozy, the Arab League must surely have disappointed Qaddafi by joining the current action against him.

Of course the French president had motives other than disappointment for urging decisive action against the Libyan dictator. Sarkozy likes to stress the humanitarian motive, which is perfectly legitimate, and “shared democratic values,” which the rebels may or may not in fact hold. But he also hoped to draw a veil over earlier disarray in his government’s response to the “Arab spring.” When demonstrators in Tunis faced the armed forces of another dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie proposed sending French riot police to Tunisia to help train their Tunisian counterparts in crowd-control techniques. She also vacationed in Tunisia in the rebellion’s early days and accepted transportation on the private jet of a Ben Ali crony with whom her elderly parents had entered into a business deal.

These revelations eventually forced Alliot-Marie’s resignation and led to the appointment of Alain Juppé, a man of vast experience as well as an old rival of Sarkozy, as foreign minister. But the president then stunned Juppé by deciding to recognize the rebels and bomb Libyan airfields while his foreign minister was in Brussels, negotiating with European partners. Juppé had not been told of this decision in advance and was visibly dumbfounded when informed by reporters. To add insult to injury, the announcement of France’s policy was made on the steps of the Élysée Palace by the playboy philosopher and gadabout humanitarian Bernard-Henri Lévy, an acquaintance of Sarkozy who had developed his own private contacts in the rebel camp. Juppé reportedly threatened to resign over this affront to his authority, but to date he remains in his post.

Sarkozy also faces a tough fight for reelection in 2012. His approval rating is at its nadir, around 25 percent. Several recent polls have shown him running third, behind Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, and any of several possible Socialist candidates. And in cantonal elections held this past weekend, as the military action in Libya was unfolding, the president’s party took a shellacking. In such circumstances, a leader who takes his country to war will always be suspected of seeking advantage at the polls. Yet there has been no discernible surge of support for the president since French jets first took off for Libya a few days ago.

If there are suspicions about Sarkozy’s motives, the president himself must share the blame. Various officials have indicated that one of the government’s concerns about turmoil in Libya is the possibility that any state failure there will increase the influx of refugees attempting to enter Europe by boat. Le Pen went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, tantalizingly close to the Libyan coast, to dramatize this concern, but the president’s own party played on similar fears. One deputy, Chantal Brunel, threatened a week ago to “put them back into boats” if North African refugees landed on European shores. Earlier, Laurent Wauquiez, minister for European affairs, warned against tolerating illegal immigration in the wake of the Tunisian rebellion. Such statements undermine the president’s high humanitarian rhetoric and foster suspicion of base ulterior motives.

Furthermore, Gaullist grandeur may prove elusive if the fighting in the desert fails to go as planned. To be sure, French planes were the first to bomb targets around Benghazi, even before the U.S. cruise missile strikes on air defense sites. But the reality is that the French and British, who are supposed to bear the brunt of the action, do not have the “force projection” capabilities of the United States. The engagement has already gone well beyond enforcement of a no-fly zone to include action against Libyan armor and artillery. The poorly trained rebels may need a good deal more close support, unless the intervention persuades Qaddafi’s mercenaries that the risks of fighting on now outweigh the benefits. But even if the mercenaries quit, loyalist Libyan troops would remain in the field, and the rebels’ ability to defeat them even with air support remains to be demonstrated. Finally, even if Qaddafi is toppled, Libya’s future will be determined by what unfolds in the aftermath, and France will have to contend with other interested parties for influence over that process. In short, France’s intervention may serve to underscore the limits of the French global reach, even in a region where it was once a dominant player.

And that brings us to another key aspect of Sarkozy’s gamble. France has a large immigrant population, much of it drawn from North Africa. French Muslims, especially the younger ones, identified with the youthful and largely secular protesters in Tunis and Cairo. The effort to prevent a massacre in Benghazi has had popular appeal, but escalation may lead to protest. Bitter memories of French imperialism can easily flare into open opposition if the military adventure takes a wrong turn.

Finally, there is the matter of the European Union, where Sarkozy’s initiative has already proved problematic. His hasty recognition of the rebels, just as talks with European partners were getting under way in Brussels, and in the absence of any clear indications of who the rebel leaders are and what political forces they might represent, made a mockery of the idea of a common EU foreign policy — an idea that Sarkozy championed back in the days when he was crusading for the Lisbon Treaty. He has been careless of European sensibilities in most of his foreign ventures to date and has frequently ruffled the feathers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has not been enthusiastic about military action in Libya. Sarkozy’s penchant for impetuous action may well have put paid to European cooperation in the short to medium term.

Conversely, the rapprochement of France and Britain, which was already apparent in the agreement to share an aircraft carrier, has been advanced by the Libyan affair, in which Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy have generally seen eye to eye, despite a temporary disagreement about the role of NATO in the operation. One difference is worth noting, however: Cameron sought a vote of confidence from the House of Commons before going to war. Sarkozy didn’t need to bother with such niceties — he controls his National Assembly. He simply acted, like the Bourbon kings of old, de son bon plaisir — at his own pleasure. But so did Barack Obama, whose presidency is not supposed to bear the regal trappings that go with executive office in France. Sovereignty, it has been said, is the power to declare an emergency. If so, then the Libyan intervention has been a striking demonstration of Sarkozy’s sovereignty over la Grande Nation. He has stuck his neck out quite far in pushing for Western intervention in Libya, and he is now committed to see the mission through, though it may well strain French military capabilities to the breaking point.

Arthur Goldhammer is an affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He blogs on French politics at

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