Gadaffi’s visit to France sparks protests

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

By Ben Hall in Paris

Muammer Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, on Monday began a five-day visit to Paris to buy arms, nuclear power and civil airliners, triggering a storm of criticism from campaigners and an outburst from a government minister who said France should not accept his “kiss of death”.

Colonel Gadaffi was last night expected to sign a clutch of contracts valued at about €10bn ($14.7bn, £7bn) with French companies at the Elysée palace following talks with Nicolas Sarkozy. The Libyan leader is looking to buy 26 Airbus aircraft, a nuclear power station, French Rafale fighters and missiles, spare parts for his fleet of Mirage fighters and military helicopters.

The Libyan leader’s visit – his first to a large western capital since he renounced terrorism and terminated his programme to purchase weapons of mass destruction in 2003 – unleashed a political furore in France.

Rama Yade, a junior foreign minister, criticised civil rights abuses under Col Gadaffi’s regime and warned her own government not to sign business deals with Libya without securing “guarantees” on human rights. France stood for “more than a trade balance”, she said.

“Col Gadaffi has to understand that our country is not a doormat upon which a leader, terrorist or not, can wipe off the blood of his crimes,” she said. “France should not receive his kiss of death.”

Bernard Kouchner, foreign minister, said France was right to open up to a leader who “has shifted from terrorism to co-operation against terrorism”. But he sympathised with Ms Yade, saying “by happy coincidence” he would be out of the country last night and would miss an official dinner with the Libyan leader.

The opposition Socialists seized on Ms Yade’s remarks as condemnation of French foreign policy and a “slap in the face” for Mr Sarkozy. The president promised during his election campaign to put human rights higher up France’s diplomatic agenda.

He has recently celebrated France’s commercial prowess with visits to countries with dubious human rights records, including Russia, China and Algeria, where French companies have signed contracts worth tens of billions of euros.

The Elysée has defended Col Gadaffi’s visit, saying it was right to reward Libya for abandoning its attempt to secure a nuclear weapon and renouncing terrorism, and paying compensation to the victims of the bombing of a US airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and a French plane over Niger in 1989.

Mr Sarkozy invited Col Gadaffi to France in July following the release of a group of Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been imprisoned and sentenced to death in Libya for deliberately infecting children with HIV, an action of which there was apparently little evidence.

The release of the nurses, after the personal intervention of Mr Sarkozy’s then wife, Cecilia, was regarded at the time as a diplomatic coup for the new president. But it also provoked uproar, with the Socialists convening a parliamentary inquiry into the terms of the deal.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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