Who would have thought it would be the French government leading the onslaught on Libya’s regime? When Arab revolutions started in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, most of the cabinet was just back from New Year holidays hosted by the countries’ despots. Francois Fillon, the prime minister, had taken his wife and five children on a five-star Nile cruise, while a private jet was made available to the foreign secretary, Michele Alliot-Marie, and a party that included her parents in Tunis.
And remember that it was only in 2007 that President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to Paris as an honoured friend, entertaining him at the Ritz and taking him on a tour around the Palace of Versailles during a five-day official visit. Other highlights included the sealing of a $400 million (Dh1.5 billion) arms deal, with an agreement in principle for Libya to purchase French-made Rafale jets, the same type of jets that France is using to bring death and destruction to terrified Libyan conscripts.
Yet, despite such outrages, it is Mr Sarkozy who has remoulded himself as the hawk-in-chief of the military strikes against Qaddafi’s regime. France’s president pushed for a no-fly zone before anyone else, helped to secure UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to implement it, and was the first to recognise representatives of the insurgents as the official opposition. As Mr Sarkozy hosted the key Elysee Palace summit which rubber-stamped military action, French jets were already blowing up Libyan tanks and radar installations.
To try and understand why, we need to consider France’s long history as a colonial power in the Maghreb. Its conquest of Algeria in the 19th century was, for example, extremely bloody. The repression that followed lasted 132 years as France combined regular military action with a Paris-centric bureaucracy.
The break-up of the empire following the Second World War was even more violent, with Paris on the one hand trying to deal with independence movements, while also trying desperately to appease colonial administrators and the other expatriates who felt betrayed. Such a complicated situation produced even more chaos, but most of all it produced an overwhelming sense of guilt. This was as true in Algeria as it was in countries like Tunisia and Morocco.
Although Libya is a former Italian colony, there is no doubt that Arabs everywhere have been outraged by France’s duplicitous relationship with the country for decades. As Col Qaddafi’s 2007 trip to Paris showed, Mr Sarkozy was as disgracefully cosy with the colonel’s regime as he was with Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s in Tunisia.
The disgraced former foreign secretary, Mrs Alliot-Marie, had wanted to send riot police and rubber bullets to prop up Ben Ali during the early stages of the Jasmine Revolution. This was while Mr Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were just returning from a luxurious holiday of their own as the guests of Mohammed VI of Morocco.
Mrs Alliot-Marie was soon sacked, but Mr Sarkozy knew that her diplomatic faux pas at the start of the Arab Spring had done huge harm to France’s international standing. Her behaviour was a sinister reminder of a repressive France creating Maghreb paradises for its rich and powerful, who used every measure possible to keep down the locals. So it was that Mr Sarkozy called his military advisers to urgent meetings to try and make up for the shame. In a farcical statement, he directed them to limit their holidays to France’s beaches and ski slopes.
The result, as far as the situation in Libya is concerned, is far from reassuring. France is clearly at odds with many of its allies. These differences range from the diplomatic (Britain refusing to follow Mr Sarkozy in recognising the National Transitional Council as the official government of Libya) to the military (France pushing for an escalation in the violence in the hope of a quick victory, while others call for a ceasefire).
The result is an increasingly bloody stalemate, with many fearing the kind of disaster that has blighted Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the last decade. Ominously, France’s interior minister Claude Gueant has already spoken about France “leading the crusade” in Libya.
Mr Sarkozy and his lieutenants appear to have lost all sense of the original aim of Security Council Resolution 1973, which was to protect civilians. They are clearly intent on regime change, but have given no indication about what part they expect the international community to play in the establishing of democracy in Libya if – as is by no means certain – Col Qaddafi is actually deposed.
Perhaps the clearest indication that Mr Sarkozy has bitten off more than he can chew is the US president Barack Obama’s relative indifference. As Mr Sarkozy huffs and puffs, urging more and more violence, Mr Obama is putting out the message that he views the Libyan crisis as somebody else’s war.
Meanwhile, Mr Sarkozy continues to maintain the philosopher Bernard Henry Levy as his principal adviser on Libya. This rather eccentric academic was in Benghazi when the conflict started, and has urged Mr Sarkozy to try and make up for France’s muddled approach to Arab democracy – and indeed its colonial past – with firm action.
More worrying still was his attitude to the Iraq War. While even conservatives in Paris were opposing it back in 2003, Mr Levy actually supported it. Set in the context of France’s disastrous colonial-style record in North Africa, such muddle and inconsistency is entirely predictable.