vendredi 18 mars 2011

French diplomacy under the limelight

As a write these lines, the UN has given the green light to the use of force against Mouamar Kadhafi's regime in Libya. The situation is still very unclear. Aerial strikes seemed imminent but the recent cease fire declared by the regime (but denounced by the rebels as nothing but a smokescreen) may have put things on halt for a while.

Whatever the outcome of this entire affair, one thing is quasi certain: France is back in the game.

Until recently, it seemed like French diplomacy was in the toilet. Since Sarkozy's accession to power, the Elysée Palace, under the influence of the president's all powerful advisors Claude Guéant and Jean David Levitte, has been steadily sucking power away from the foreign office. Under Bernard Kouchner, the Quai d'Orsay has sunk into irrelevance and disgrace. The Arab revolts only made matters worst by highlighting France's tendency to cozy up to any autocrat that guarantees stability and helps it stem the flow of migrants wishing to reach European shores. In the earliest stage of the crisis, then minister Michèle Alliot Marie even offered Tunisian authorities France's help in managing (ie: squashing) the nascent protests. Then came Libya and awkward memories of Mouamar Kadhafi planting his tent in the gardens of the Hotel Marigny in Paris during a grandiloquent state visit came back to haunt French diplomats. As it turns out, some of the weapons used by Kadhafi to decimate his own population are made in France and things could have been even more embarrassing had France managed to make Libya the first (and only) country to import its much flaunted Rafale fighter plane.

That was SO 2008!

But yesterday, all of that seemed forgotten when Alain Juppé (France newly appointed minister of foreign affairs) lead the charge against Kadhafi and spearheaded the effort to convince the UN general assembly to approve a motion that would allow the use of force against the Libyan dictator. From a strategic point of view, this push was a very adroit (and necessary move). After it's poor handling of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, France decided that it would not be left behind this time and was amongst the first nations to formally recognize the rebel government in Benghazi. Sarkozy even held talks with the leaders of the rebel movement at the Elysée palace, much to the displeasure of Germany whose cautious stance on the issue could later place in on the wrong side of history and prove an embarrassment to Merkel's fragile government already weakened by recent electoral defeats. However as Kadhafi's forces regained lost ground, it appeared that Sarkozy and Juppé might have overplayed their hand and rushed into this entire thing without really thinking it through. Nonetheless, thanks to Juppé's active lobbying, France now looks like the big player in the game and has successfully rushed to fill the leadership void left by America.

For France, recent events mean 2 things:

1- It has shaken off the Irak syndrome: you may not expect a country who so fiercely resisted the American led operation in Irak to adopt such a bold and adventurist posture. And yet it has. Does this usher in a new era of French activism in world affairs? Too soon to tell. But with America busy keeping its head down and incapable of (or unwilling to) leading the way, France may smell an opportunity to play a bigger role on the world scene, especially if the coming military operation is a success. After all, it still has a pretty powerful and well organized diplomatic presence around the world, is less divisive than America and knows the Arab world like its own backyard since,well, it used to be just that.

2- Juppé was a good choice. Only a man of Juppé's stature and intelligence could lead such as effort. With such a heavyweight at its head, the Quai d'Orsay will regain some of its former power, especially as Sarkozy enters campaign mode and focusses on domestic issues. This is a good thing for France's political system and for it's influence in the world.

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