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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 July 2007, 20:56 GMT 21:56 UK
Sarkozys lead French Libya push
By Hugh Schofield

She said she would not be a conventional first lady, and she has been as good as her word.

Cecilia Sarkozy at Sofia Airport
Critics have queried what Mrs Sarkozy's exact foreign policy role is
By her personal mission to Libya, Cecilia Sarkozy has pushed back the boundaries of international protocol and arguably helped save the six Bulgarian medics

But she has also set a lot of teeth in edge in France - where her husband's opponents say she's stepped right out of line.

A phone-in programme on Europe 1 radio provided an interesting insight into the depth of feeling her mission has raised.

"What's the point in having a foreign minister? What's the point in having a prime minister? Why don't we just let the Sarkozys run the country all by themselves?" shouted one irate caller from Paris.

The Socialist Party took up the cry, accusing Mr Sarkozy and his wife of following a "cuckoo's nest strategy".

"They're laying their egg in someone's else's nest. It's a complete spectacle. It's the EU that did all the negotiating and now the Sarkozys want to cash in," according to the Socialist former minister Pierre Moscovici.

Passionate pleas

And even Le Monde newspaper, which has toned down its stark anti-Sarkozy rhetoric from before the election, felt impelled to raise its eyebrows.

France feels it is missing out on the chance for contracts in oil development, infrastructure, even civilian nuclear power

Was Cecilia Sarkozy acting as a mother, a humanitarian, an intermediary, or an emissary, it asked. Because every description had been used at some point by the Elysee Palace.

"Mr Sarkozy says he is encouraging his wife to find herself a role. It would be nice if he could shed now some light on it," Le Monde said.

Arguments will no doubt rage for many months over what effect the Sarkozys actually had in the negotiation to free the prisoners. Did they make a difference, or did they just cash in?

In fact it is hard to accuse the president of mere opportunism, because he has spoken in passionate terms about the fate of the Bulgarians since well before his election in May.

Diplomatic success

The groundwork for the release was clearly done by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, and Mr Sarkozy's aides do not deny that.

Mr Sarkozy wants to set the seal on a new - and profitable - era in bilateral relations

However what they say is that the intervention of the Sarkozys provided a vital fillip to negotiations. After all in Libya - as across the region - it is personal contact that makes the difference.

Whatever the truth, Sarkozy can certainly claim the release as another diplomatic success - and he should reap rich returns.

Because for France the issue has never been just humanitarian. Its resolution is also a strategic opportunity to build up links with a country that has more or less completed its return to international respectability.

Since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's spectacular renunciation of terrorism and nuclear weapons in 2003, he has courted attention primarily from Britain and the US.


France feels it is missing out on the chance for contracts in oil development, infrastructure, even civilian nuclear power - and this in a part of the world, north Africa, in which it has traditionally wielded much influence.

Bulgarian medics arrive in the capital, Sofia
The medics were freed after years of negotiation
Hence the president's determination to visit Gaddafi as soon as the prisoner row was over.

Mr Sarkozy wants to set the seal on a new - and profitable - era in bilateral relations.

As for his wife, she has taken a step - but only one step - towards carving out the kind of independent role she would like to have as France's first lady.

Her intervention in Libya was a great success and by all accounts she handled herself with aplomb. But the truth is it was a one-off.

Similar missions - mixing high diplomacy with the humanitarian - will not come round often.

And even if they do, she can hardly become her husband's foreign affairs troubleshooter. That would be pushing convention just a little too far.

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