In his victory speech on election night this past May, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that under his reign, “the pride and the duty of France” will be on the side of “all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship.” Sarkozy appealed to “all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance and democracy” to join him. Specifically, Sarkozy pledged, “France will be on the side of the locked-up nurses in Libya.” Whereas his predecessor Jacques Chirac acted out of delusions of grandeur, Sarkozy’s goal is to restore identity to a nation imbued with failure and doubt.
This week Sarkozy produced a “success,” bringing home the nurses. But aiding the persecuted should not entail paying off their persecutors. Sarkozy’s pledge became farce when Madame Sarkozy, followed by le président de la République himself, sat in Colonel Qaddafi’s tent, after which the Madame said that she and the Libyan dictator had built “a real relationship of trust.”
But it was more than “trust” that convinced the Libyan to free his hostages. Qaddafi’s blackmail went something like this: in exchange for freeing the nurses, European countries would forgive $400 million of Libya’s foreign debt and allow Libya (Libya!) to host the next UN conference on racism. The parties also agreed to deepen Franco-Libyan relations to include a possible military-industrial partnership and, not least, contracts for French oil companies. (Compare this haggle to Natan Sharansky’s defiant crossing of the Glienicke Bridge into West Berlin.)
The cost, when viewed in the proper context, is very high: others (North Korea, but especially Iran) are surely watching. Even the impression of relenting to blackmail and terrorism is self-defeating. To be sure, this is a very bizarre affair with a long and twisted history, and Qaddafi, though truly a crackpot, did surrender his weapons of mass destruction to the United States. But even a little goodwill in the face of brutality can be perilous.
Sarkozy remains a mystery. He showed independence when he called Hizballah a “terrorist” organization, which of course it is, even though it is not classified as such by the European Union. And whereas Chirac blocked action on Darfur, Sarkozy is eager to stop genocide—in cooperation with the United States. Still, this week’s events suggest that Sarkozy is shirking his generation’s tasks: curbing nuclear proliferation abroad and, at home, overcoming the entrenched enarchs and ending their long collaboration with Islamism and terrorism.
Far from shaking up French foreign policy, Sarkozy’s actions this week were eerily reminiscent of Monsieur Chirac’s: Sarkozy cheered on Arab nuclear power while seeking conciliation and contracts from Arab regimes. (When asked to describe Chirac, the great British historian Paul Johnson responded: “Why are the French so notorious for shiftiness? Because there are plenty of Chiracs there.”) Yes, the world looks different from the Elysée than it did from the victory stage, but, by collaborating with tyrants and dictators, Sarkozy further degrades “the pride and the duty of France.”