France's Sarkozy Enjoys Burst Of Public Support

French President Nicolas Sarkozy talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday.

hide captionFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

While President Obama is facing some criticism over America's role in Libya — it's just the opposite for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

He pushed for military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from the start of the uprising. A few critics have suggested Sarkozy's motives are linked to boosting his flagging domestic popularity.

But for the most part, Sarkozy's bold actions have earned him a rare respite from the usual barrage of criticism.

The words you most often hear the French use to describe their president are overbearing, hyperactive, impetuous, paranoid. But these terms have been missing from the national vocabulary, ever since Sarkozy became Libya's liberator last weekend.

"Peaceful Libyan citizens who are only asking to choose their own destiny are in danger of dying," Sarkozy said. "We have the duty to reply to their anguished call, in the name of a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such a crime."

"When there is a crisis, you know, he knows how to decide quickly," says Franz Olivier Giesbert, editor of the weekly magazine Le Point. "You know he takes his phone, he calls and convince[s]. And he's very good at this job."

Giesbert says Sarkozy masters complicated international crises, but bungles the small things.

"He's awful when things are doing well. He's just awful," he says. "But when there is a crisis, an awful crisis, there he's always good. Even in France. So it's a very strange personality which needs trouble — big problems — to be at his top."

Giesbert names the world financial crisis and the Russia-Georgia conflict as two crises Sarkozy handled well. His failures, he says, are too long to list.

Another columnist, Alain Duhamel of Liberation, says there are two Sarkozys — one solves problems, the other creates them.

All week, French television has been showing French Rafale and Mirage jets taking off for missions to Libya. Polls show more than 60 percent of the French approve of the Libyan intervention. That's a huge turnaround for Sarkozy, whose poll numbers are usually at rock bottom.

"The French like their president to be the inheritor of the Sun King or of Napoleon," says Dominique Moisy of the French Institute for International Relations. "To be flamboyant — to be highly visible — is a plus in a country like France."

Moisy says international status is key to the French sense of national identity.

All the mainstream political parties support the Libyan operation. And Moisy says that's because there's a clear U.N. resolution and because the Arab nations are onboard.

Four years ago, Sarkozy invited Gadhafi to Paris — and even allowed him to pitch his Bedouin tent near the Elysee Palace. But this month France was the first Western government to break ties with Libya and the only one to recognize the rebels' transitional government.

In an angry response, the Libyans claimed Gadhafi had helped finance Sarkozy's presidential campaign. Sarkozy's aides denied that, and the Libyans have provided no proof to support their allegation.

Anyway, says magazine editor Giesbert, Sarkozy has more pressing issues on his mind.

"There are two good times in a war, when you start and when you finish," Giesbert says. "The problem is, when are we going to finish?"

Giesbert says the French loathe Gadhafi and feel he is beatable. So for now, they're supporting their president. But if the mission doesn't end quickly and successfully, he says, all that will change.

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