Even before allied forces unleashed a "shock and awe" barrage of cruise missile attacks against Libya on March 19, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to take the credit, saying France had "decided to assume its role, its role before history" in stopping strongman Muammar Gaddafi's "killing spree" against people whose only crime was to seek to "liberate themselves from servitude."

Sarkozy's newfound concern for Libyan democracy contrasts sharply from only three years ago, when Sarkozy welcomed Gaddafi with open arms during an extravagant five-day state visit to France. On that occasion in December 2007, Gaddafi breezed into Paris in his Bedouin robes, accompanied by an entourage of 400 servants, five airplanes, a camel and 30 female virgin bodyguards, and then proceeded to pitch his heated tent on the grounds of the palatial Hôtel de Marigny, just across the street from the Elysée Palace.

At the time, Sarkozy ridiculed critics of Gaddafi's visit by saying: "It is rather beautiful the principle that consists in not getting yourself wet, not taking risks, being so certain of everything you think while you're having your latte on the Boulevard Saint-Germain." He also asked: "If we don't welcome countries that are starting to take the path of respectability, what can we say to those that leave that path?" Meanwhile, Sarkozy's chief diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, insisted that Libya had a "right to redemption."

Nor did Sarkozy express much support for the recent uprisings in the Arab world, which deposed long-time friends of Paris, including Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In the case of Tunisia, Sarkozy reluctantly fired his loyal foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, after it emerged that she borrowed a private jet from a Tunisian businessman linked to Ben Ali in order to work on her suntan in the Tunisian seaside town of Tabarka during the height of the political upheaval in Tunisia. According to the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, Alliot-Marie also offered Ben Ali the "know how" of France's security forces to help him quash the fighting in Tunisia just three days before he was removed from office.

In Egypt, it emerged that French Prime Minister François Fillon and his family had accepted a free holiday from Mubarak, complete with a private plane and Nile River boat, just weeks before the Egyptian president was removed from office. Facing accusations that France cozies up to dictators, Sarkozy said that in the future, his government ministers should take their holidays in France.

So what explains Sarkozy's about-face vis-à-vis Libya? His sudden support for the anti-Gaddafi rebels can be attributed to two main factors: opinion polls and the closely related issue of Muslim immigration.

Sarkozy's sudden zeal for the cause of democracy in Libya comes as his popularity is at record lows just thirteen months before the first round of the 2012 presidential election. With polls showing that Sarkozy is the least popular president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he is betting that French voters will appreciate his efforts in Libya to place France at the center of the world stage and reinforce what Charles de Gaulle once famously called "a certain idea of France" as a nation of exceptional destiny.

Further, Sarkozy's main rival is not Gaddafi, but rather Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new leader of the far-right National Front party in France. A new opinion poll published by Le Parisien newspaper on March 8 has Le Pen, who took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January, winning the first round of next year's presidential election.

The survey gives Le Pen 23%, two percentage points ahead of both Sarkozy and Socialist leader Martine Aubry. On the basis of this opinion poll, Le Pen would automatically qualify for the second round run-off with one or other of the two mainstream party leaders.

Le Pen, who appeals to middle class voters, is riding high on voter dissatisfaction with the failure of the mainstream parties to address the problem of Muslim immigration. Since taking her post three months ago, Le Pen has single-handedly catapulted the twin issues of Muslim immigration and French national identity to the top of the French political agenda. In recent weeks, Le Pen has been a permanent fixture on prime-time television to discuss the threat to France of a wave of immigrants from Libya.

Gaddafi has already pledged that Europe will be "invaded" by an army of African immigrants: "You will have immigration. Thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe. There will be no-one to stop them any more," he warned on March 6 in an interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

During a visit to Italy in August 2010, Gaddafi demanded €5 billion a year from the European Union to stop illegal immigration which "threatens to turn Europe black." At the time, Gaddafi asked: "What will be the reaction of the white Christian Europeans to this mass of hungry, uneducated Africans? We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and cohesive continent or if it will be destroyed by this barbarian invasion. We have to imagine that this could happen, but before it does we need to work together."

Furious Europeans have compared Gaddafi's demands for cash to stop illegal immigration to a "Mafia extortion racket." But since the revolt in Tunisia in January, nearly 15,000 boat people (more than the total for all of 2010) have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, a 20-square-kilometer island that traditionally has been a major gateway for illegal immigration into the European Union.

On March 14, Le Pen upstaged Sarkozy by visiting Lampedusa and telling undocumented migrants on the island that they were not welcome in Europe. "I have a lot of compassion for you, but Europe cannot welcome you," Le Pen said. "We do not have the financial means."

On March 2, the French minister for European affairs, Laurent Wauquiez, warned that up to 300,000 illegal immigrants could arrive in the European Union from North Africa during 2011. The influx of immigrants from Libya is a "real risk for Europe that must not be underestimated," he said.

Threatened by Le Pen's rising popularity, and in urgent need of a political boost, Sarkozy is now using the Libya intervention both to play the role of the respected statesman on the international stage and to address French concerns over mass immigration from North Africa.

During a March 21 interview with France 24, however, Le Pen dismissed Sarkozy as "a French president who is no longer running anything, who is governing on impulse or emotion, depending on the circumstances."

As an angry Gaddafi threatens to turn the "entire Mediterranean into a battlefield," it remains to be seen whether Sarkozy's gamble in Libya will pay off. With the French economy stalled, and unemployment stuck at 9.6%, any political bounce for Sarkozy is likely to ebb the longer the military campaign against Gaddafi lasts.

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