The NATO air campaign to oust Muammar Qaddafi began with French Mirage jets destroying a column of his tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi seven months ago.
Yesterday, it was a French Mirage jet that fired to block Qaddafi’s escape from Sirte in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Libyan fighters then moved in and killed the man who had ruled their country for 42 years.
The French involvement in the war’s denouement was symbolic of the leading role President Nicolas Sarkozy has played since Libyan rebels first sought outside help for their revolution.
While U.S. military involvement was “quite considerable,” said Andrew Pierre, a former senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, “the intervention in Libya will be perceived by the French public as French-led. That will be a strong card for a man who’s facing a very tough” re-election bid next year.
Sarkozy was the first Western leader to recognize the National Transitional Council as the representatives of the Libyan people, and French planes carried out the largest number of ground attacks. Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron took the lead in a public campaign to impose a no-fly zone over Libya which led to NATO effectively providing air cover to otherwise out-gunned Libyan rebels.
“The end of Qaddafi was the work of Libyans in Libya,” French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said at a press conference yesterday in Paris. “But French aviation was present from the start.”
Longuet said coalition planes yesterday noticed “a convoy of several dozen four-by-four vehicles trying to force their way out of Sirte.” A Dassault Aviation SA Mirage 2000 jet fired its cannon ahead of the convoy “to block it, not to destroy it,” Longuet said. NTC forces then closed in on the blocked convoy and Qaddafi was killed in the fighting, Longuet said.
NATO now “will terminate our mission in coordination with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
On March 10, after a meeting at Sarkozy’s Elysee presidential palace with leaders of the TNC, organized by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, France became the first Western government to recognize the council as the representatives of the Libyan people. On March 19, hours after the UN voted to impose an air-exclusion zone over Libya, French planes flew from mainland France with aerial refueling to destroy a tank column at the gates of Benghazi, the hometown of the NTC.
Sarkozy has repeatedly said that the attack, carried out before U.S. cruise missiles knocked out Libya’s air defenses, prevented a bloodbath in Benghazi.
In June, the French again went ahead of their NATO allies in air-dropping weapons to rebels in the Western mountains of Libya. Those rebels then went on the offensive, opening up a third front in the war after those of Benghazi and Misrata.
At a briefing in early September, French officials claimed their planes carried out 25 percent of all ground attacks, the most of any country, and 85 percent of helicopter attacks. French planes were based in Corsica, Crete, and on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and Mistral helicopter carrier.
The Libya campaign cost the French state 350 million euros ($480 million) beyond what was already budgeted for overseas military operations, the defense ministry said in presentation of its 2012 budget in late September.
Sarkozy presents a vision of France as “a great power that can take action and be effective because of his leadership,” said Pierre, a former director-general of the Atlantic Institute for International Affairs in Paris.
Sarkozy, who was elected in 2007 and faces re-election next year, boosted France’s military engagements in Afghanistan in 2008 and returned France to NATO’s unified military command in 2009. At one point this year, French military forces were engaged on four fronts: Libya, Afghanistan, enforcing a UN demand that Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo step down, and in a European anti-piracy fleet off the coast of Somalia.
For Sarkozy, success in Libya won’t necessarily help his re-election next year.
“Libya is popular on the whole with the French because it plays to their sense of France standing up for human rights,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Paris Political Studies Institute. “But that’s not what’s going to decide the election. It’s not as important as the economy.”
Francois Hollande, who won the Socialist Party’s nomination last weekend, would defeat Sarkozy 62 percent to 38 percent if elections were held now, a poll released Oct. 19 said. Hollande has supported the military operations in Libya.