From the outset, the French President saw the battle for Libya in very personal terms -- as both a chance to make his mark in history, and rebound politically.
He was the one to take the decisions on the deliveries of weapons to the rebels and even appealed to the good offices of his key ally, Qatar. Those weapons included French weaponry destined to the Nafusa Mountains in June; and others, recently delivered, to a rebel group that landed on a beach in Tripoli after having left from Misrata.
Some wars bear a highly personal touch. When talking about the NATO intervention in Kosovo back in 1999, people used to call it "Madeline's War," referring to Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State who had spent part of her childhood in Central Europe during World War II and thus related on a personal level to the notion of "never again."
Nicolas Sarkozy threw himself in this Libyan adventure like few other Western leaders have before him on a post-Cold War international crisis. Surely, he saw in this rebellion a possible political comeback, and beyond that, the desire to see France renew its strategic position in the Arab world. For him, it's a way to return to the themes of his 2007 election when he had promised that France "would be side by side with the oppressed."
Last August 12, on the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier, the president alluded strongly to the "constant commitment of France (…) in every place where the freedom of the people and democracy are threatened." In private, when talking about Gaddafi, he even used such phrases as: "We are going to make him bite the dust" or "we're going to bring him to his knees."
The war in Libya would thus be a path to recover some stature for Sarkozy. Rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt had plunged French diplomacy into disarray, particularly after the absurd offers made to the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali to send police forces to help him.
When referring to the situation in Libya, Sarkozy often alluded to what happened in Srebrenica, where Europe's worst massacre since World War II took place in 1995. Last June, in Brussels, he barked back at reporters' questions about the risks of the Libyan campaign. "Today, Benghazi, a city of 1 million people, would be wiped off the map (…) In Srebrenica, 8,000 people should have been protected by the democracies!"
Competing with his predecessors
According to sources who have worked with him on major issues, Sarkozy is obsessed with the comparison with former French Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. Indeed, he wants to outdo them both on the international stage, first when Mitterrand had to deal with the Bosnian war, and when Chirac had to handle what happened in Afghanistan or the Ivory Coast.
Libya has been the test of fire for baby-boomer Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the first president of the French Fifth Republic not to have personally experienced war. Sarkozy did his national service in 1978, in an office belonging to the Air Force in Paris. According to a former Chirac adviser, Sarkozy "doesn't have the military culture, unlike Chirac who loves this culture though he doesn't like generals."
Chirac loved to say to his former colleagues: "War is the worst solution." When Sarkozy welcomed military leaders of the Libyan rebellion last April and last July, he threw himself into the battle strategy, a task usually entrusted to advisers.
Nicolas Sarkozy really wanted to beat Gaddafi. This war has turned into a duel between the two men. Gaddafi "was always insulting him", and accused Sarkozy of having his eyes on oil in Libya, something Gaddafi "could not forgive", says a French expert of the Arab world who knows the French president very well.
The Sarkozy-Gaddafi story was one of an extraordinary rapprochement, before it sank into violent confrontation. In 2007, Sarkozy was at first thrilled at the idea of "handling" the Libyan leader. He was determined to be successful where others had failed. Early in his term, Sarkozy intervened in the Bulgarian nurses' case, with all its gray areas, even having his then wife Cécilia make various trips to Tripoli. Things could not have gotten more personal.
A January 2008 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks revealed that Nicolas Sarkozy "believes it's worth trying to improve bad guys like Gaddafi." After Gaddafi's incredible visit in France, where he set up his famous tent in the middle of Paris, Sarkozy decided to turn his back on him and concluded the Libyan leader suffered serious mental illness. He said it over and over again to his colleagues during the operations in Libya: "I know the guy, he is crazy!" On the third day of Gaddafi's visit in Paris in December 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy could stand him no longer: "I don't want to see him anymore!" Gaddafi had indeed just given a long speech about women's "oppression" in France and had called on disaffected youth in the suburbs to "rise up".
As time went by, there were military hardware contracts that were discussed between the two countries, but never signed. Still, the French president and the country's big arms producers were ready to arm Gaddafi's troops. But in 2011, the war brought to an end this policy of dangerous liaisons in a rather spectacular way.
In France, the decision to use military force beyond the borders can only be made by the President of the Republic, who is the head of the Army. Despite some difficulties, France remains one of the world's most powerful military forces. According to a French Senior officer, Sarkozy's discovery of this power to have the final say on military intervention was a kind of "republican consecration."
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