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

After taking the lead in efforts to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya, France appears set on playing a bigger role on the international stage. President Nicolas Sarkozy is pressing for the U.N. Security Council to act against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has brutally cracked down on his people. France will also try to extend its influence on the Middle East peace process.

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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.

Mr. MAHMOUD JIBRIL (Rebel Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

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.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through translator): 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: That wasn't always the case. Just seven months ago, the French government offered Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali its help with riot control just as the popular uprising began. And it was Sarkozy who invited Gadhafi to Paris for a state visit in 2007 and even let the Libyan leader pitch his Bedouin tent on the grounds of the Elysee Palace.

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

Mr. KARIM EMILE BITAR (Fellow, Institute of Strategic Relations): 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: And, Bitar says, because France was afraid of massive immigration from the southern shores of the Mediterranean. But after the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions, France realized it could no longer support aging dictators. So in a change of policy, Paris pushed hard for a Security Council resolution against Gadhafi and rallied other Western nations to the Libyan rebels' cause. France led the way militarily too. Its pilots flew about a third of the bombing missions over Libya, and attack helicopters took off from the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle stationed just off the Libyan coast.

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.

Mr. BERNARD VALERO (French Foreign Ministry): 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: France's close proximity to the Arab world and its colonial history there means it has a special responsibility for the region, Valero says. Sarkozy is now pressing for tougher European sanctions and for the Security Council to act against Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who has brutally cracked down on his people. France will also try to extend its influence on the Middle East peace process. Analysts say Sarkozy is close to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, and could encourage him back to the negotiating table.

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

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOISY (French Institute for International Relations): 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: French officials say France is not trying to supplant the United States in the Middle East, but Moisy and other analysts say Paris could play a useful supporting role at a time when America is unable or unwilling to take the lead.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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