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Scrambling over Libya: Sarkozy & France’s Grandeur Nationale

Scrambling over Libya: Sarkozy and France’s Grandeur Nationale

Binoy Kampmark
September 2, 2011

The corpse is barely warm, and the scrambling over the legacy has begun. Africa has long been grist for the mills of imperial powers, a place of plunder, profit and papier-mâché sovereignty. The NATO members will have their own ideas about what exactly to do with Libya now that Gaddafi is, at least seemingly, done. As the Paris Conference on the fate of the country takes place, the chess pieces are coming to the fore, the moves being made rapidly.

The French, for one, have lofty ambitions for the state. It is conceivable that the entire intervention by NATO would not have taken place were it not for the urgings of the Sarkozy government, who initiated Operation Odyssey Dawn without too much home disruption. As much of politics involves crafting a defence for the indefensible, what will President Nicolas Sarkozy be pitching?

For one, Sarko is impressed with his new nickname ‘Sarkozy the Libyan’. This distasteful dubbing suggests has also followed with a sense of ownership of the conflict. Every politician in electoral distress would wish a war was around the corner. Shedding blood can be good for the polls and illustrious for the image.

Sarkozy got one, and ran with it. Even a sense of proprietary ownership has been exerted over the conflict: this was Sarkozy’s war (Guardian, Sep 1). As political analyst Robert Harneis ventured in Al-Ahram (23-29 Jun), ‘Only small children and nice-minded little old ladies are inclined to believe that [Sarko’s war] is solely about the welfare of the Libyan people. It if was, France and NATO would be at war with half the world including themselves for that they are doing to civilians in Afghanistan.’

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This does not bother such pro-interventionist stalwarts as Bernard-Henry Lévy, who journeyed to Libya to satisfy both an itchy conscience and perhaps a little bloody voyeurism. In March, he would pen an image of insufferable romance for the rebel cause, for before him were people ‘who have never in their lives held a weapon in their hands’ to what might have been death before mercenaries and aircraft (Huffington Post, Mar 12). Down, he proclaimed, with the ‘juridico-pussifooting quibbling of the others.’ As Gaddafi had made off with the wealth and blood of the country, it was only fitting for others to pinch it back.

BHL, filled with Byronic lust for aggression, contacted Sarko with a plea from Benghazi that the President recognise the National Transitional Council. This was duly granted. As an unnamed Sarkozy source claimed, ‘Bernard-Henri rang him from Benghazi to tell him that French flags were everywhere. He told him that if he allowed a bloodbath there the blood would stain the French flag. That really affected him’ (Frum Forum, Mar 27). Given that the stains of blood on the French flag are too deep, let alone innumerable to remove, a few more would surely hardly have mattered. But to the dry cleaners went Sarko in hope of a clean, fresh success.

The relationship of Libya and the West is one of psychosis, tempered by occasional acceptance. Journeys into and out of the asylum of international politics, be it with the meddlesome antics of the CIA which assisted in the dethronement of the puppet King Idris in 1969, to the dysfunctional relationship with Gaddafi himself, suggest that the trend is set to continue. The NTC, speckled with inner conflict, is bound to have a few tricks up their inscrutable sleeves.

Gaddafi himself, when he wasn’t the dramatic figure of iconic evil, was a murderous eccentric who pitched his tent in the gardens of the Elysée and accepted compensation for past colonial wrongs inflicted on ‘his’ people by an equally bombastic Silvio Berlusconi. (Regimes prefer leaving the killing of their own citizens to their agents. To do otherwise would be inconsiderate.) Gaddafi is useful again as the figure of distracting opprobrium. Prime Minister David Cameron can focus on matters of ‘state’ away from a riotous and Broken Britain; and Sarkozy can get on with the business of bumping up in the polls. Given that he is France’s most unpopular leader on record, the task is colossal and bound to flounder.

The weak can last a long time in politics, making incompetence a virtue, and sound planning a vice. The brutal, ill-directed campaign by NATO serves as a reminder that the rules of Social Darwinism don’t tend to apply on the international stage: the inept will often survive at the expense of the good. At least BHL will be happy that the West pinched back Libya for its rightful owners, whoever they might be.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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