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Why France moved forcefully on Ivory Coast, Libya

While it was late in embracing movements that ousted old allies in Tunisia and Egypt, France has led on Ivory Coast and Libya. How much are domestic politics influencing this role?

By Staff writer / April 7, 2011

Pro-Gbagbo protesters, one of them holding a defaced poster depicting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attend a demonstration to condemn French military action in Abidjan next to the French Defense Ministry in Paris, on Thursday, April 7. Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo remained holed up as Ivorian fighters are trying to install the elected president Alassane Ouattara.

Francois Mor/AP

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Paris

With its aircraft in the skies of Libya and Ivory Coast, France has suddenly escaped diplomatic obscurity to find itself taking a leading role in two military ventures that have arguably tipped the scales on behalf of civilians.

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This comes after France was embarrassingly late in embracing pro-democracy protests that successfully ousted its old allies in Egypt and Tunisia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his aides at the Élysée Palace have emerged from that diplomatic fumble to help engineer intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and are showing a new, more robust international profile.

For France, the two military actions followed the same script. It moved swiftly after 11th hour United Nations resolutions authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians and worked in tandem with other countries or multinational forces. And in both cases, reputedly unstable leaders appeared bent on blocking the people's will.

"In Libya and in Ivory Coast, France has played big. It is in the process, at least in Abidjan [Ivory Coast's capital], of scoring a success that will have a world impact," said military analyst Pierre Rousselin in the pro-Sarkozy daily Le Figaro.

French analysts are divided not on whether, but the degree to which domestic politics is motivating Mr. Sarkozy. He is making bold moves at time when his popularity at home is low. The UN resolutions have inspired in him a new determination to intercede in select crises that favor France’s military capability. France has long been known for “punching above its weight” on the global stage and doing so in a way that appears to bolster its international aims and French values and interests.

Sarkozy vowed when elected to restore a French international profile that had withered in opposition to the US-led Iraq war. The public here is generally opposed to operations in Afghanistan, where 4,000 troops are based, but appear to tacitly accept and even applaud action in Libya and Ivory Coast where France has a history and some notions of a sphere of influence.

“The French Army has the means of intervening at the same time in Ivory Coast, in Libya, and in Afghanistan,” says French air brigadier Jean-Vincent Brisset. But, he added, "It is obvious there are limits and that … multiple fronts can’t be sustained over long periods of time.”

Just as President Obama called on America’s “unique capabilities” to help a European request to intervene in Libya to save lives in Benghazi, Sarkozy has employed unique French capabilities in Ivory Coast, a former colony that has maintained French investment as well as military garrisons.

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