By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 14, 2007
PARIS -- December, it seems, is a great time to shop in Paris.
Brother Leader Moammar Gaddafi, the newly redeemed leader of Libya, came to town this week loaded with petrodollars for a holiday shopping spree, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was an eager merchant.
To give a more authentic Middle Eastern bazaar effect to the whole affair, Gaddafi set up a Bedouin tent in the gardens of the official guest residence, the 19th-century Hotel Marigny, next to the presidential Elysee Palace.
Human rights groups and politicians lit into Sarkozy, accusing him of selling French principles down the river and seeming to ignore Gaddafi's poor human rights record in exchange for $14.7 billion worth of deals. The contracts provide for Libya to buy 21 Airbus jetliners, at least one civilian nuclear reactor, more than a dozen Rafale fighter jets, 35 helicopters, armored vehicles, air defense radar gear and other useful items.
"Some say that Gaddafi's attitude in his country has not changed, that he does not respect human rights and still supports terrorism," said Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a North Africa specialist at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. Others, she said, accuse Sarkozy of being "a cynic with his realpolitik and his willingness to make money from Libya."
But Mohsen-Finan said that in her view, Gaddafi gave up "the core of his diplomacy" when he relinquished his weapons of mass destruction and renounced terrorism. And Sarkozy has put commercial interest at the top of his agenda, she added, after realizing that France was late to invest in Libya in comparison with Germany and Italy. "These two new types of diplomacy will redefine a new link between France and Libya," she said.
The French government said it was all business as usual. "Libya has become a client like any other," presidential spokesman David Martinon told LCI television.
Some analysts said that doing business with dictators was, in fact, business as usual for any French government.
Sarkozy has also been disparaged recently for signing $30 billion worth of deals on a trip to China while saying little about that country's human rights problems and for rushing to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin after his party's victory in a parliamentary election last week that many people in the West were calling undemocratic and unfair.
Sarkozy defended his outreach to Gaddafi, saying that the Libyan leader's decision in 2003 to halt his country's weapons programs and terrorist activity deserved to be rewarded, which could induce other rogue countries to follow suit.
"I am also here to fight at the side of French businesses and factories so that we have the contracts and orders that others were so happy to have in our stead," Sarkozy told reporters after his first meeting with Gaddafi on Monday. Besides, he had implored his guest to "make progress on the path of human rights," Sarkozy said.
Gaddafi begged to differ.
"President Sarkozy and I did not discuss these subjects," he said in an interview aired Tuesday on France 2 television. "We are quite close friends."
Signaling their disapproval of the visit, about half the 80 lawmakers invited to a ceremony honoring Gaddafi at the National Assembly on Tuesday boycotted the event. "The National Assembly is not just any place," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the main opposition Socialist Party. "You don't roll out the red carpet to a dictator within the walls of democracy."
"It's not the color of the carpet" that matters, retorted French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "It is the fact that we are trying to bring toward us countries which have left terrorism."
Bristling at continued criticism of his rights record, Gaddafi fired back during a speech Tuesday at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's headquarters, accusing his European hosts of hypocrisy.
"They brought us here like cattle to do hard and dirty work, and then they throw us to live on the outskirts of towns, and when we claim our rights, the police beat us," Gaddafi said in an apparent reference to the suburbs around Paris where many minorities live in low-income public housing.
Gaddafi drew complaints about his visit even before he arrived, saying at a conference in Lisbon last week that it was "normal for the weak to resort to terrorism."
In 2003, Libya formally accepted legal responsibility for the actions of an intelligence agent who had been convicted in a Scottish court of downing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people. The court said the "clear inference" of the evidence was that "the conception, planning and execution of the plot . . . was of Libyan origin."
But during his five-day stay here, Gaddafi also has given fuel to critics who doubt the sincerity of his repentance for past misdeeds, including the downing of a French passenger jet. "Libya has never committed a terrorist act," he said in the television interview, adding, however, that a state cannot be responsible for the acts of all its citizens. He also insisted that there are no rights abuses in Libya.
"We are coming out of a period of national liberation across the world," Gaddafi said. "This struggle, this confrontation is now over." Libya, he said, is "determined to participate in a new world of peace, liberty and cooperation among nations and civilizations."
On Thursday, Gaddafi played tourist, visiting the Louvre in the company of his trademark squad of female bodyguards, dressed in their usual desert fatigues. As the women eyed onlookers, Gaddafi took in such treasures as the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa.
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.