After weeks of diplomatic wavering on the tumult in the Arab world, President Nicolas Sarkozy is scrambling to signal to the world that France is back on track, defending core human values and treading with a sure foot in the changed Middle Eastwrites Katrinn Bennhold.
To be sure, Mr. Sarkozy is not alone among Western leaders to appear to falter in the fast-moving revolts convulsing the Arab world. But France, which has long claimed a special standing in that region and won respect there for opposing the war in Iraq in 2003, has seemed especially unnerved.
All this has come against a background of simmering discontent among France’s professional diplomats — traditionally known for discretion and aplomb. On Tuesday, an anonymous complaint signed by several diplomats appeared in Le Monde, criticizing Mr. Sarkozy’s foreign policy as more show than substance.
…France, home to some five million Muslim inhabitants mostly of North African descent, prides itself on a special relationship with and understanding of the Arab world and its former colonial backyard in general.
Yet recent missteps have eroded much of that good will at home and abroad, diplomats and analysts warn. A first major sign came last summer, when Le Monde published a complaint by a former French ambassador to Africa about the Elysée Palace’s hijacking French diplomacy in Africa and cozy links between French elites and leaders in former colonies.
…The diplomats’ statement in Le Monde on Tuesday lamented France’s — and Europe’s — lack of influence the world over. “Contrary to the announcements trumpeted for the past three years, Europe is powerless, Africa escapes us, the Mediterranean won’t talk to us, China has kept us down and Washington is ignoring us!” the diplomats wrote.
Henri Guaino, one of Mr. Sarkozy’s most senior advisers, dismissed the laments as “cheap-shot judgments” ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.
…Embarrassed in Tunisia and to a lesser degree in Egypt, Mr. Sarkozy also took his time in condemning the violence in Libya. On Monday, six days into the uprising, when Human Rights Watch put the number of confirmed deaths at 233 — it has climbed since — Mr. Sarkozy made his first public statement, calling for an “immediate halt to the violence.”
Only after Colonel Qaddafi gave a televised address, vowing to fight the rebellion until his “last drop of blood,” did Mr. Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany call for sanctions.
It was not quite swift enough to avoid extensive reminders in the French media of the red carpet treatment Colonel Qaddafi received in 2007, after Tripoli released six foreign medics convicted of infecting Libyan children with the HIV virus in a deal Paris helped to broker.
During the Paris visit, several billion euros worth of industrial contracts were signed and Mr. Sarkozy justified his hospitality saying that he was “sending a signal to the Arab street.”