French President Aids Release of Bulgarians

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy visits Libya in an effort to aid the country's reintegration with the West and further French interests. The meeting follows Libya's release of six medical professionals convicted of infecting Libyan children with HIV.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The release of the medical workers is opening diplomatic doors for Libya. France's president is in Tripoli today for talks with Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi.

President Sarkozy and his wife played a key role in winning the release of the medical crew, as we hear in this report from reporter Eleanor Beardsley.

Unidentified Man: (French Spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The French woke up yesterday morning to live television coverage of the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor stepping off a French plane after their long ordeal on death row in Libya. It seemed that action-man French President Nicolas Sarkozy had done it again.

The French also discovered that their usually camera-shy first lady was something of a diplomat. Cecilia Sarkozy, who waved coolly from the tarmac, had made two trips to Libya in the past 10 days to plead for the medics' release. While her unconventional diplomatic foray was criticized by some EU officials, the former fashion model's charms and negotiating skills must have swayed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

President Sarkozy beamed with pride as he spoke about his wife's mission at a press conference in Paris.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) She did an incredible job. This was a story about women and the humanitarian crisis, and I thought Cecilia could be useful. And she pulled it off with humanity, brio and courage.

BEARDSLEY: While the French initiative simply topped off years of hard negotiating for the nurses' release by the European Union, it does seem that Sarkozy's personal touch made the difference. Sarkozy had made the Bulgarian nurses plight a top concern of his presidency, and he rightly sensed that the Libyan strong man was more keen to conclude a deal with another state rather than an entity like the European Union.

Still, it was the multi-million euro compensation fund set up by the EU to help the families of the HIV infected children, as well as promises of technical aid and a normalization of relations, that formed the backbone of the release agreement.

Sarkozy says his visit to Libya today is about helping the country rejoin the international community. Political analyst Christophe Barbier thinks that France and the West should beware of the pitfalls of their Libyan success.

Mr. CHRISTOPHE BARBIER (Editor, L'Express Magazine): (Through translator) It's obvious that Qaddafi will be the long-term winner in this situation. He got to accuse the innocent nurses. He got money from the West. And now he's wrapping himself in international recognition. Are we going to pay too dear a price for playing Colonel Qaddafi's game, which is nothing but a form of state hostage-taking and terrorism?

BEARDSLEY: Cecilia Sarkozy's role in the release is controversial, and not only because it broke with the tradition of French first ladies taking a backseat to their husbands. Socialist lawmaker Norwin Mameyer(ph) said Sarkozy has transformed his wife into a substitute minister.

Mr. NORWIN MAMEYER: (Through translator) We're in a republic and not a monarchy. And in the republic, your legitimacy is earned to something called universal suffrage. I wasn't aware that Madame Sarkozy had been elected to office.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy defended his wife's involvement, saying the mission's difficult nature called for unusual action. Even so, the glow of yesterday's success is starting to dim along with rumors that Qaddafi wants Airbus planes, Rafael jets and French nuclear technology in exchange.

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

MONTAGNE: And you can find an analysis of the recent shift in the relationship between the United States and Libya at npr.org.

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