PARIS (Reuters) - Plagued by ruinous poll ratings a year before a likely re-election battle, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pulled off a public relations coup by leaping into the driving seat of the intervention in Libya.
His glory could be short-lived though if what first looked like a heroic operation to save civilians ends up pulling France and its partners into a lengthy and complex foreign conflict.
A rift between Western powers who back the Libyan operation and developing countries who oppose it — and bickering about who should run it — raises the specter of disastrous consequences for the action-man leader if things go awry.
“This is a gamble he’s taken and I think it was mainly for domestic reasons,” said political analyst Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute. “He’s a man who doesn’t let an opportunity go by, but this could end up as a quagmire. It’s very risky and this could be make or break for him.”
Waging a foreign war is not an obvious way to win support among the conflict-wary French, but Sarkozy had made it clear he would show leadership over Libya to make up for clumsy handling of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
Muammar Gaddafi made an appropriate target too after Sarkozy came under fire in France for rolling the red carpet out to the Libyan leader in 2007 and letting him pitch his Bedouin-style tent by the Elysee Palace.
That state visit, Gaddafi’s first in decades to a Western leader, came after Sarkozy helped get five Bulgarian nurses freed from a Libyan jail in one of a string of swashbuckling foreign missions since he came to power in 2007.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy has now fallen behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen as well as veteran leftists. Ratings below 30 percent make him one of France’s least popular presidents ever.
Sarkozy saw France’s year-long presidency of the G20 and G8 as opportunities for international grandstanding but has been hampered by a tough debate on his global monetary reform plans and by his poor early handling of unrest in North Africa.
Now he hopes the sight of him summoning world leaders to Paris and being the one to come out and announce action to save Libyans from bloodshed will fill French hearts with national pride.
“The president loves crises with their concomitant surge of adrenalin,” Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations was quoted as saying in a blog.
“Sarkozy is taking a high but legitimate risk that he can retake the moral (and political) high ground.”
The possibility of his Libya initiative coming back to bite him is looming larger as the dust settles from the first French strikes, which were minutes away from happening as Sarkozy announced on Saturday that fighter jets were over Libya.
His decision to charge ahead with action within hours of U.N. approval has set off a raft of divisions. Opposition is mounting from China, Russia, Brazil, India and others, and the West is arguing about what role NATO should take in the operation as the United States steps back.
Even before France deployed its jets, Sarkozy’s breathless pace of action, coming out early to recognize the rebel opposition and mooting the idea of targeted strikes, irked Germany, which ended up declining to participate.
A chief influence on Sarkozy this month was philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who flew to Libya on a fact-finding mission and telephoned Sarkozy from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Sarkozy unveiled the operation in a solemn speech alone at a lectern and left world figures like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arrange private media briefings.
“I do not like the way it was stage-managed,” said Reland.
“What makes me ill at ease is whether there was really a danger of massacres in Benghazi. We don’t know enough about these insurgents and we don’t know enough about Libya.”
On Tuesday, Sarkozy made a flying visit to a French air base on the Mediterranean island of Corsica with his defense minister.
France defended itself on Tuesday against reports of rifts with its allies, saying its armed forces chief had told its partners in full about the strikes it planned in Libya.
“The heads of the armed forces of France, Britain and America were in close coordination. Our counterparts were kept up to date on all our intentions and did not show any objections,” armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
International divisions aside, it is unclear whether Sarkozy stands to gain as much from a successful Libyan intervention as he stands to lose if it all goes wrong.
A survey conducted by pollster IFOP on March 10, before the U.N. resolution on a no-fly zone, found only 30 percent of respondents would support French military action in Libya, compared with 55 percent who in a 2001 poll backed action in Afghanistan. A fresh IFOP poll on Tuesday found 66 percent of French people supported the coalition’s Libya intervention.
“It’s not the main preoccupation of the French,” said IPSOS head Jean-Francois Doridot. Preoccupied by economic gloom, voters might worry about repercussions by terror groups.
Surprisingly few opposition politicians have accused Sarkozy of engineering the operation’s timing for political reasons, one exception being National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen who is harboring dreams of seeing his daughter as French president.
“Everyone knows that when things aren’t going very well on the home front that’s when you get the flag out, sound the bugle,” Le Pen told France 2 television on Tuesday.
“You bang the drum to play on people’s patriotic reflexes but for us, at any rate, it will not work at all.”
Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and John Irish; Editing by Janet Lawrence