The French president has public support, but if things go wrong that will fast disappear, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
Not even George W Bush could have hoped to get away with six simultaneous wars. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be thriving on them. We French have troops in Mali, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Somalia – and, most visibly, over Libya and in Ivory Coast.
Cynics will argue that Sarkozy is a gambler, staking his re-election next year on the throw of the military dice. But even though he’s wildly unpopular, and a political calculator nonpareil, the truth is that Sarko is also showing his own peculiar brand of sincerity. He genuinely believes, for instance, that France’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide was dishonourable (as a junior minister, he argued in favour of intervention). And he has form: a couple of years ago, he authorised a raid against Somali pirates, resulting in the rescue of our hostages and the pirates being showily taken back to France for trial.
Any image of the French as pacifists is misleading. We hate losing wars, but we believe in both la gloire and in hard-nosed choices that we sell to ourselves as idealism. We have forgiven Sarko a botched (and fatal) attempt to free two hostages from an al Qaeda affiliate in Mali, and are remarkably quiet about our 10-year presence in Afghanistan. French troops have also been an almost constant presence in Ivory Coast over the past decade, more than once stepping in to prevent a Liberian-style civil war – and to protect French nationals and interests.
But what makes the current outbreak of muscular interventionism so delightful for Sarko is that he seemed to have missed his opportunity. When the Tunisian revolt began, the foreign secretary, Michèle Alliot-Marie, suggested that French police could help quell the unrest (for which she later lost her job). Events in Egypt, too, seemed to pass France by, not least because a host of presidents have been the grateful recipients of Hosni Mubarak’s hospitality: Sarkozy even went there to woo Carla Bruni in the winter of 2008.
What saved Sarko’s blushes was Col Gaddafi’s bloody repression of the Libyan revolt. This offered Sarkozy – and France – an overdue opportunity to take a principled stance. And the operation’s unlikely mastermind was one of France’s unique contributions to both fashion and global politics: Bernard-Henri Lévy, the battling philosopher with a line in human rights advocacy and designer shirts.
In February, the 62-year-old author of such slight but best-selling volumes as Barbarism with a Human Face (Communism: bad), Left in Dark Times (politically correct toleration of totalitarianism: very bad) and Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (LSE-graduate Islamists beheading US reporters: uniquely bad) found himself in Cairo. The situation was unbearable: he was but one of an indiscriminate mass of reporters, all after the same story. So when he heard the rumbles of revolt in Libya, he hitched a ride to Benghazi in a fruit-seller’s van, made his way to rebel HQ, told them he could arrange for them to get diplomatic recognition from France, borrowed an old satellite phone – and did just that.
Lévy sees himself as the reincarnation of André Malraux (Nobel-winning novelist, hero of the Spanish Civil War, wartime acolyte of de Gaulle and former culture minister). In truth, he is a far more buffoonish figure, but he certainly has connections: it was in his palazzo in Marrakesh that his daughter’s husband left her for Carla Bruni, and his godfather is the impeccably connected Gucci tycoon François Pinault. Although Lévy supported the socialists in the last election, and won’t vote for Sarko next year, the pair have dined together regularly for years. So, after he called Sarko, the president arranged for the rebel leaders to be spirited to Paris. The visit, and formal recognition of the rebels as the lawful government in exile, was kept so secret that the new foreign secretary, Alain Juppé, only heard about it when asked by reporters in Brussels.
So far, the gamble seems to have paid off. After France initiated the first air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, the news was full of rebels waving tricolours and vowing that their firstborn would be named “Sarkozy”. Even warnings that some are former al‑Qaeda militants have failed to dent the popular support. As in Ivory Coast, French initiative is seen as preventing a bloodbath – and having a good conscience has always played well in Paris.
Of course, Sarko knows that things could turn sour at any moment. Loyalist counter-attacks mean that operations in Libya could last longer, and reports of massacres in Ivory Coast by supporters of the new president have cast a pall over events. All of which could transform what seemed clear-cut – supporting the good guys, preventing bloodshed, upholding France’s ideals – into a protracted, bloody mess. In Paris, as elsewhere, foreign adventures have often been the last resort of the battered politician. If the missions fail, Sarkozy’s presidency will surely fail with them.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011