French Give President Sarkozy Low Approval Ratings

Poll numbers in France show approximately two-thirds of people there support President Sarkozy's action in Libya. But that hasn't translated into higher approval ratings for Sarkozy as he faces an election next year. Arthur Goldhammer, of the Center for European Studies at Harvard, talks to Renee Montagne about Sarkozy's challenges at home and abroad.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So far, polls show two-thirds of people in France approve of the country's intervention in Libya. It's not clear what that means for President Sarkozy. Some of Sarkozy's opponents suggest that he's pushed military involvement in Libya and Ivory Coast in an attempt to improve his own political fortunes. Arthur Goldhammer wrote about that for Foreign Policy magazine. We reached him at his office at Harvard's Center for European Studies.

Good morning.

Mr. ARTHUR GOLDHAMMER (Center for European Studies, Harvard): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You recently wrote about these forays into conflict in Foreign Policy Magazine and you called them Sarkozy's misguided quest for glory. What exactly did you mean by that?

Mr. GOLDHAMMER: Well, my point was that Sarkozy is a president who has a flare for sensing the mood of the French public. And I think he saw an opportunity here possibly to improve his ratings with the French electorate. He's always had an appetite for risk in his career. And I think before other Western leaders are ready to take the plunge in Libya, Sarkozy saw an opportunity - a risky one to be sure - but one that he was willing to run.

MONTAGNE: Is it, in your opinion, just about scoring political points? Is there not a deeper and maybe more historic quest that Sarkozy is on?

Prof. GOLDHAMMER: Well, first of all, I want to be clear that I don't think that Sarkozy's only motivation was to improve his political standing. I think there was a genuine and laudable humanitarian concern here. Beyond that, Sarkozy, like all French presidents before him, has been keen to define an independent French position in foreign policy, to stake out France's own role, and two to make it clear that France is not dependent on international organizations and on the opinion of other countries.

So historically, it has had close ties to Libya. And the Ivory Coast, where it has intervened most recently, has been considered part of France's backyard; it was part of French Africa for many years. France has had troops there on the ground, as had the U.N. for some time, and has been very patient in allowing the situation to develop since the November elections. This was not a case of impulsive action; it was a much more deliberate and an considered decision, in my opinion.

MONTAGNE: When it came though to Libya, Sarkozy had developed quite a cozy relationship with Moammar Gadhafi. How did that influence or not his support for the rebels?

Prof. GOLDHAMMER: Yes, I think this was a factor. It was of considerable embarrassment to Sarkozy that he had moved to establish closer relations with Libya immediately after his election. You may recall that in 2007, there was an issue with Bulgarian nurses being held in Libya. Sarkozy sent his then-wife as special the French ambassador to Gadhafi and obtained the release of those nurses.

Later, about six months later in December of 2007, invited Gadhafi to come to Paris, where Gadhafi's behavior was erratic enough to make this invitation laughable in the eyes of the French public. He pitched his tent in the courtyard of a fancy Paris hotel and he gave a rather bizarre interview on French television.

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering beyond France how might this more muscular position on the part of Sarkozy - representing France - how might that affect his standing on the world stage?

Prof. GOLDHAMMER: Well, I think that it's been helpful in relations with the United States because France was willing to take a leading role, where the United States was reluctant to become so directly involved in Libya. The French involvement in Ivory Coast has alleviated the need for any U.S. involvement there. And the European Union however, French objectivism has cut two ways. It's brought France closer to the United Kingdom under David Cameron, because Cameron shared Sarkozy's desire to become involved in Libya. But it's complicated relations with Angela Merkel in Germany, because she was reluctant to become involved.

MONTAGNE: Arthur Goldhammer is with the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. GOLDHAMMER: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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