Friday, 28 December 2007

New year resolutions

The French have never been more ambitious on the eve of a new year than they are on this holiday season – the first of the Sarkozy era. A dynamic push from our tireless president led us to an unprecedented number of new year resolutions. The French will smoke less in 2008 and work more, as the government is moving forward with a plan that could put an end to the renowned ‘35-hour week’. But more than anything, France is aiming for world peace.

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once referred to as “the black hole of all conflicts” by former FM Michel Barnier, is France’s secret resolution for 2008, as it tries to maintain its international stature, and French diplomacy evaluates that pressing for a quick creation of a Palestinian State could be an efficient way to reach its goal.

FM Bernard Kouchner placed the creation of a Palestinian State at the center of the Paris Donor Conference organized on December 17 and went as far as to joke around and declare: “And the winner is: The Palestinian State!” in his final press conference with Mahmoud Abbas.

My friend the Israeli journalist Shmuel Tal told Kouchner that one of the main actors, Hamas, was absent from the Paris conference, and therefore no decisive progress was possible. However, Sari Nusseibeh, former PLO representative in Jerusalem, told me he thought that, on the contrary, no positive evolution would ever be possible with Hamas.
“Hamas ideology, its nature, cannot change,” said Nusseibeh. “The only solution is to move forward and attract gradually Hamas supporters.”

Aside from peace, the quest of love and good business are two of the main new year resolutions for 2008. For the first time in history, French newspapers have started a ‘shiduchim’ campaign to find new love for the recently divorced president.

All of the country’s dailies, radios and most TV stations have treated Sarkozy as the new ‘bachelor’, first trying to match him with various local stars and then widely reporting on his 3-week dating affair with former top model Carla Bruni, with whom he has apparently spent Christmas in Egypt. The love story took center stage in the media and some have accused President Sarkozy of using his liaison to take attention away from the recent Gaddafi fiasco – the Libyan leader’s exuberant visit in France - which left many French speechless. No analyst can seriously support such a maneuver, yet one must stress that the president’s red carpet invitation to the Libyan leader, in exchange for multi-billion dollar business deals, was highly criticized, even within his own party and government.

“Colonel Gaddafi must understand that France is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or other, may wipe his bloody shoes” declared young secretary of state to Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Rama Yade.

“Gaddafi has turned us into fools” – wrote France Soir editor Gérard Carreyrou. “God created the world in six days and Gadaffi used his 6-day visit to mock everyone: the French Republic, our elected president and millions of citizens.”

“We’ve given Gaddafi a red carpet treatment to the eyes of the world,” said opposition member François Bayrou. “We sold away our values for a bunch of uncertain trade deals with Libya [..] signing defense agreements that turn us into Tripoli’s ally. [..] As a result, France will be marginalized and weakened.”

“France has been dishonored!” wrote Pascal Brukner, an author who is generally among Sarkozy’s supporters. “We’ve already humiliated ourselves with a presidential visit to the Anti-Semitic Algerian regime, with enthusiastic phone calls to Putin and with a visit from Hugo Chavez. When will we unroll a red carpet for M. Ahmadinejad?”
(Some critics added President Bush to the list of Sarkozy’s questionable contacts.)

The critics recalled Gaddafi’s recent renewed support for terror, when stating at the Lisbon EU-Africa summit that terror was the weapon of the weak. They also stressed his lack respect for human rights in Libya, and more specifically the affair of the Bulgarian nurses, imprisoned for years although they were innocent.

“Gaddafi has 6 million hostages – Libya’s inhabitants,” wrote Charly Hebdo Weekly.
However loud and unanimous throughout Paris, critics were silenced, almost forgotten and unsuspected in various events organized for the Libyan guest.

I had the rare opportunity to attend a gathering of women in favor of Gaddafi which seamed as anything from surreal to hallucinating. The mere topic of the conference: ‘women’s rights’ was yet another attempt by Gaddafi to embarrass the French. In preceding days he accused them of neglecting human rights and failing to respect their immigrants - turning Western criticism of Libya against Europe.

Hundreds of women from African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Libya and Northern African countries dressed in traditional and glamorous dresses, many of them veiled, cheered Gaddafi in his three-hour appearance as if he were a rock star, waiving veils with his picture and applauding everyone of his extraordinary statements.
The atmosphere was so unusual that an elected representative of the Jewish community found herself greeting Gaddafi in the name of the community. – I was later asked not to report on this in the local media to avoid unnecessary embarrassment, as this was anything but planned.
“I’m here to save Europe,” said Gaddafi. “Europeans abandon their children on the streets, and when these children grow up they can reach powerful positions and then their psychological trauma can lead them to launch wars and genocides.”
Gaddafi persuaded the assembly that working is not always in women’s best interest.
“Men and women have equal rights, but not equal duties,” he said “Women shouldn’t lower themselves to certain jobs which may be decent for men, but not for them.” “Women have so much to do at home – They start a second job once they come home from their official working place.”
A veiled woman turned to me, laughing, and said “Well, the men are the ones who should start changing”.

A delegate from UNESCO turned to Gaddafi and asked him to contribute to the education of African girls. Gaddafi answered that the European women are the ones who should be saved, getting cheers from the crowd.

One can wonder how women living in Europe can cheer and hail such words and bow to such a dictator. While talking and observing several women and their address to Gaddafi I noted there were different crowds. Some women chairing various African associations were trying to get Gaddafi’s attention on various problems they were facing, lobbying the leader for women’s interests. Others were simply overwhelmed, trying desperately to get a picture of the “guide of the revolution” on their cell phones, cheering every word.

Will Gaddafi’s criticism against France’s immigration policies have an effect on France’s troubled suburbs? Some experts fear that it may. And the effect can be revealed when one speaks with some immigrants.

One of my Moroccan journalist colleagues, Fatima, told me today that France had some nerve accusing Libya of failing to respect human rights.

“It is in France that human rights are not respected,” she told me in the way Gaddafi stated it a week ago, “You French have a limited notion of human rights. Human rights are not about freedom of speech, they are also, and mainly about giving everyone the chance to earn a living.”
“Whenever I get to a job interview, even in state offices, my resume is suddenly not good enough,” she added. “Human rights are about dignity and I don’t feel that I have that here in France.”

Political scientists such as Zaki Laidi evaluate that inviting dictators like Gaddafi only reinforces them and weakens those who oppose them, and Laidi questions the results of Sarkozy’s will to respect such guests he is forced to invite for strategic and economic reasons, selling them nuclear plants and various weapons.

Sarkozy argues that Libya has abandoned terror. He adds that he is not alone and that time has come to reintegrate Libya in the ‘International community’.

The French may be asking themselves other questions: whether their country has invited such guests in order to regain its past international stature, whether France will succeed in its attempt to reintegrate, or cling to, the ‘powerful nations community’ or whether the very resolved Sarkozy is experiencing his first presidential setback.

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