Qaddafi visit roils France

Critics say President Sarkozy ignored Libya's dismal human rights record while pursuing $17.6 billion in business deals.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a blend of Bedouin rococo and realpolitik, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi set up camp next to the Elysée Palace in the French capital this week.

So that he could receive guests in style during his six-day visit, his obliging hosts constructed a heated, carpeted, and TV-filled tent in the garden of the Paris mansion used to house visiting dignitaries.

And Mr. Qaddafi has been busy.

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Flush with petrodollars, he has so far signed contracts valued at ¤12 billion ($17.6 billion) to buy French airplanes, military hardware, and nuclear power plants.

It has been a titillating week, with the fanfare, the tent, and the mega-contracts. But the visit has also divided President Sarkozy's government, outraged human rights activists, and prompted accusations that France is coddling a dictator in pursuit of its business interests.

"It's a question of balance, and in this case, the balance wasn't right," says Dominique Moïsi, director of the French Institute on International Relations.

Mr. Sarkozy, the first Western leader to host the strongman since Libya renounced terrorism, said he confronted Qaddafi over his country's dismal human rights record. But Qaddafi, ever the eccentric in sunglasses and a cape under gray Paris skies, told a television interviewer that the subject never came up. Qaddafi arrived on Monday and is set to leave on Saturday.

President Sarkozy angrily defended his welcome of Qaddafi as a logical response to Libya's renunciation four years ago of both terrorism and nuclear arms.

"I'm convinced that France should speak with everyone while firmly asserting its values," Mr. Sarkozy said, in an interview published Thursday on the website of magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

"What can we say to the Iranians on the nuclear question," he added, "if we continue to ostracize those, like Libya, who have chosen the path of respectability, and if we don't talk with those who are going in the opposite direction?"

Like many Western countries, France has historically mixed pragmatism and idealism in its foreign policy.

It courted and protected dictators in its former colonies in Africa for decades. It competed vigorously with the US and Europe to promote its companies in the Middle East and Asia. In the face of American policy to condemn and isolate so-called rogue states, France long argued for tough-minded engagement.

At the same time, the public side of its diplomacy has been infused with the idea that France has a particular role to play in the world as a militant defender of human rights. Sarkozy paid homage to that cherished self-image soon after his election in May, promising he would always side with those "persecuted by tyranny and dictatorships."

He has been an enthusiastic supporter of sanctions to force Iran to renounce its nuclear ambitions and of an international intervention force in Darfur. But his recent trips to China and Russia, which produced a slew of contracts for French companies like the nuclear-generator manufacturer Areva, were criticized for appearing to relegate human rights issues to the sidelines.

Sarkozy ministers critical of visit

His welcome of Qaddafi, who has ruled his country with an iron hand for 38 years, has provoked a similar response.

Along with many senior parliamentarians, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a career human rights campaigner, was a no-show at the Qaddafi events in Paris. "By happy coincidence," he said, state business kept him away.

More dramatic was the reaction of Rama Yade, the junior minister for human rights who openly denounced Qaddafi Sunday, saying he "should not take France as a doormat for any leader, terrorist or not, to wipe from his feet the blood of his crimes."

But others in Sarkozy's camp were less vexed. Axel Poniatowski, the chairman of the foreign relations committee of the National Assembly, said it represented a break in French diplomatic style but not substance.

"Human rights are important to us and should remain in our policy," he added. "At the same time, we have to be pragmatic and Qaddafi's visit has produced large economic benefits."

The Libyan leader, who told the France 2 TV station that he didn't watch TV or read newspapers, seemed oblivious to the controversy. He also said Libya was not holding any political prisoners, a claim that has been rejected by Ms. Yade and human rights groups.

'Carrot' for Libya's progress

France is not unique in courting Qaddafi. The prime ministers of Britain and Italy were the first to travel to Tripoli after 2003, when Libya said it would abandon its nuclear weapons program and pay reparations to victims' families from two airliner bombings blamed on Libyan government agents. The US reestablished full diplomatic relations in 2006.

Sarkozy issued his invitation this past summer after Libya released Bulgarian medical workers who had been imprisoned on charges of infecting Libyan children with HIV. He said he then promised to escort Qaddafi "on the road to respectability" so long as the Libyan leader continued to change his ways, portraying his invitation as part of a carrot-and-stick policy.

Mr. Moïsi, like other French foreign policy experts, expressed discomfort with that approach. "Where was the stick?" he said. "Of course he freed the Bulgarian nurses, but should the fate of Bulgarian nurses determine the evolution of French foreign policy? It's sentimentalism, perhaps as an alibi for mercantilism."

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