Sarkozy's coming-out party on Darfur

In a show of his new foreign policy objectives, the French president called a meeting Monday in an attempt to help bolster the international military presence in Darfur.

The international community has bandied plans and initiatives to resolve the crisis in Darfur since it began four years ago with few results. But a meeting of senior officials from 18 influential nations, convened on Monday by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first to involve France, the US, and China, who sent its special envoy for Sudan, Liu Giujin. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the first name of the French president.]

The stated aim of the talks is to "mobilize" and beefup the African Union (AU) and the United Nations peacekeeping forces, and support talks between Sudan and Chad, whose border with Darfur has been increasingly tense as Darfurian refugees stream west. Mr. Sarkozy said France would be willing to contribute roughly €10 million ($13.46 million) to the AU, whose force of 7,000 troops has been limited by a lack of funding. The European Union pledged an extra €31 million in humanitarian funds for "the coming months."

The French initiative flows directly from Sarkozy's policies and persona: The French leader wants his nation back on the diplomatic map, and he appears to have the tools, the desire, and the political moment to do so, experts say.

"It all fits together ... Sarkozy and Kouchner have seized the moment," says Francois Heisbourg, special advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris, referring to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "Six months ago this wouldn't have worked. The Chinese would have refused. But now that Stephen Spielberg has captured China's attention, and I mean this, Beijing can see [that] their role in Darfur is harming their reputation, and they have wised up."

"Whether [the conference] will mean anything, I don't know," adds Mr. Heisbourg.

Some experts expressed skepticism as to the efficacy of an international conference that does not include Sudan or the AU.

Others, such as John Prendergast, who recently started a new action group called ENOUGH to combat genocide, feel otherwise. In a June 18 strategy paper, Mr. Prendergast and ENOUGH policy adviser Colin Thomas-Jensen said the time is right for what they call "an axis of peace for Darfur" among China, France, and the US.

"Perhaps the single most influential action that could be taken now to end the horrors in Darfur would be for the U.S., France and China to convene an informal 'troika' .... All three countries now have special envoys focused on Darfur. All three have leverage with either the Sudanese regime or the rebels, or both," said the strategy paper.

France is one of a few states with serious military projection in Africa, where it has bases, interests, and experience.

Doing something on Darfur is popular among French intellectuals, and providing a lead on the issue could balance political negatives caused by Sarkozy's tough stance on north African immigrants. Sarkozy's foreign minister, Mr. Kouchner, made his reputation as an advocate of humanitarian intervention, another perceived plus.

Sarkozy ran for president this spring partly on a campaign to rebuild France's image and clout. He wants to turn a corner by "rejoining" Europe and the world, as he put it in his presidential victory speech.

As a conservative who seeks better transatlantic relations, Sarkozy retains little of the "Iraq baggage" of predecessor Jacques Chirac, who opposed the American-led Iraq war. Sarkozy has steadily spoken of strengthening US-French relations – and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented on France's "energizing role" on Darfur.

However, AU officials were not invited to the conference and lamented not being well-informed about the initiative. An article in the French daily Liberation on Monday quoted unnamed African diplomats who, while pleased with the Chinese presence at the meeting, complained that they learned about the summit through press reports. The AU, along with the UN, would probably be one of the bodies involved in a more robust international military presence in Darfur and in Chad on Sudan's western border.

Earlier this month, AU leader John Kufuor of Ghana met with Sarkozy and stated that he felt the president "will definitely try to help find a solution in Darfur."

Sarkozy may also find a domestic upside for a French initiative on Darfur, experts say. A French-led project of international scope, an attempt at a foreign policy success at a time of mayhem in Iraq and the Middle East, may create national pride and momentum for Sarkozy's main French project – a potentially divisive market-oriented reform to end joblessness and a socialist bureaucracy and mind-set.

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