It’s now just over three months to the day since Nicolas Sarkozy invited the world’s press into the Elysée palace to announce that his bombing onslaught on Libya had begun. United Nations security council resolution 1973 – which sanctioned the “protection of civilian lives” – had only just been passed, and western leaders including David Cameron and Hillary Clinton had congregated in Paris to refine the details of military action, but there was no stopping “Speedy Sarko”.
Striding purposefully through double doors and into one of the Elysée’s grand salons, the French president offered journalists a determined grimace, telling them unequivocally that “even now” (portentous voice, shoulders back, chin up) French top-guns were blasting the life out of Gaddafi’s tanks and soldiers on some godforsaken road west of Benghazi.
The Rafale jets doing the damage might have been the kind Sarkozy had been trying to sell to Gaddafi during his state visit to Paris just four years earlier, but no matter: this was a moment to celebrate Gallic martial initiatives, not failed commercial ones. Listening to Sarkozy, you would have thought he was talking about General Philippe Leclerc and his 2nd Armoured Division spearheading the liberation of Paris in 1944. A giant American military machine might again be underwriting the assault, but the real heroes leading the line in Libya were doing so under the tricolor of sacred France.
The French press lapped up such allusions, looking forward to a brutal but swift military adventure that would topple a tyrant and stop him “killing his own people”. Sarkozy, meanwhile, could make up for his appalling domestic record with an honorable crusade against a one-time ally.
How strangely silent the same French press is today as speculation mounts that it was in fact one of their missiles that ploughed into a housing block in Tripoli, killing at least nine civilians, including young children, and seriously injuring dozens more. While authoritative journalists, including British ones, working in Libya point to the “weapons systems failure” (Nato jargon) being the fault of the French military, Paris has effectively imposed a news blackout on the subject. The day after the lethal attack, there was not one word in the French press, on TV, or on radio about those potentially responsible.
“It doesn’t matter whose missile it was,” a source at the French Ministry of Defence told me. “It’s a combined operation – we’re all in it together.” Asked directly if a French missile had killed the civilians, he replied: “No comment.”
More sceptical commentators tell me that the campaign is costing France alone the equivalent of more than €1m a day, that aircraft and naval crews have been stretched to the point of “dangerous” exhaustion, and that Gaddafi’s bunker strategy is working. Just as pertinently, military analysts evaluate a scalp, the kind of French air-launched cruise missile that may well have caused the loss of life, at costing up to €800,000 a hit. But the real cost of this lengthening and increasingly squalid war is, as Sarkozy and his generals are now discovering, proving to be a great deal more.