France Wants To Be A Player In 'New Middle East'

Aug 30, 2011
Originally published on September 7, 2011 1:04 pm
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In the earliest days of their war with Gadhafi, the rebels had an important backer - France. And that was a break from the French model. For years, Paris supported autocratic regimes in the Arab world. But then President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first Western leader to support the Libyan rebels. Now the success of the rebels' campaign has boosted France's stature. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: No sooner had Libya's rebels consolidated their hold on the capital of Tripoli than President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Mahmoud Jibril, one of the rebel leaders, to Paris for talks and a joint press conference.

MAHMOUD JIBRIL: Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Jibril thanked Sarkozy for taking quick action last March to save the people of Benghazi from massacre at the hands of Gadhafi's forces. Sarkozy said the courage of the Libyan people had proved something to the world.

NICOLAS SARKOZY: All peoples aspire to freedom and democracy, and Europe and the Arab world are not destined to be at odds with each other. France will always be with the Arab people when they call out for democracy.

BEARDSLEY: Karim Emile Bitar is a fellow at the Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris.

KARIM EMILE BITAR: France had a long history of supporting the Arab authoritarian government for three main reasons, because it perceived these governments as the lesser evil against Islamists, because of several strategic and economic interests.

BEARDSLEY: France, along with Britain, also sent military advisors and trainers to the rebels, and Paris admits to supplying them with arms. Bernard Valero is the spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry.

BERNARD VALERO: We are in a turnover of our diplomatic vision of the Arab world because during many, many years we were stuck to the necessity of stability. And now if we have the choice between stability and democracy, we definitely will choose the democracy.

BEARDSLEY: But Dominique Moisy, analyst with the French Institute for International Relations, says that won't stop France from also backing the Palestinians.

DOMINIQUE MOISY: There is a great temptation in France to support a vote at the UN for a Palestinian state. Of course it is a symbolic vote; it will be vetoed by the United States. But it will create a new dynamism to accompany the new Arab policy of France.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.