Sarkozy under scrutiny over troop decision

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The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision this spring to dispatch hundreds more French soldiers to Afghanistan was extremely unpopular. It was no surprise therefore that within hours of the slaughter in Afghanistan, M. Sarkozy interrupted his French riviera holiday with his wife Carla Bruni to fly to Kabul to support French troops.

It was the deadliest attack on French troops since a 1983 assault in Beirut in which 58 French paratroopers serving in a UN force were killed, and the highest French military death toll in an attack since clashes in Ivory Coast in 2004.

Perhaps out of respect for the dead and injured soldiers, there were no immediate calls for France to pull its 3,000 troops out of Afghanistan. The opposition Socialist party, which called a parliamentary no-confidence vote against M. Sarkozy over his decision to send the extra troops, limited itself to asking foreign affairs committees to meet urgently to ponder "the aims of this war". But the ceasefire is unlikely to last.

"The question now," said Bruno Jeanbart of the polling institute OpinionWay, "is whether public opinion will be reinforced in its feeling of the uselessness of the French presence in Afghanistan or whether the public will rally round their soldiers in difficulty, and become more favourable to it."

When M. Sarkozy was elected last year, he took French foreign policy in a radically more pro-US direction than his predecessor Jacques Chirac. He warned that France could expect casualties when – under pressure from Nato allies – he agreed in April to send 700 combat troops to eastern Afghanistan to serve in a Nato force of more than 40,000 soldiers from 40 nations.

Opinion polls showed that a large majority of French people opposed the move, with many fearing getting bogged down in an unending war whose aims were unclear or unattainable.

The move drew fierce criticism from the socialists and even from within M. Sarkozy's own party. But the President passionately defended his plan, arguing that Afghanistan was the front line in the battle against terrorism. He repeated that line yesterday and said France would not abandon the Nato mission.

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