President Nicolas Sarkozy is proving to be as awkward a military ally in 2011 as Jacques Chirac was a disruptive opponent in 2003.
Although France, Britain and the United States are nominally working together in the anti-Gaddafi air campaign, divisions and resentments have appeared in their informal, tripartite "leadership". US officials complain that France "jumped the gun" on Saturday by launching the first air attacks, largely to allow President Sarkozy to claim bragging rights at the end of the international conference on Libya in Paris.
British and Italian officials are also angry that France is opposing a transfer of the political leadership of the Libyan campaign from the US to Nato. A compromise solution to this problem emerged yesterday. France has proposed – and Britain and others have accepted – that "political" management should be switched to a committee of foreign ministers of the coalition plus the Arab League. The first meeting will take place later this week.
All the same, doubts are beginning to emerge in France about the vainglorious approach of President Sarkozy and his supporters. The French interior minister Claude Guéant, who was Mr Sarkozy's chief of staff until last month, caused consternation yesterday when he said: "While others stood and watched, [President Sarkozy] led the crusade" for a Libyan intervention. "Imperialist Crusade" is Colonel Gaddafi's mocking term for the air raids.
Officials in Paris have rejected the allegations – made at a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday and in press briefings in the US – that France launched attacks on Libyan ground forces near Benghazi on Saturday without properly informing its allies.
They said that it was clearly understood that French planes would be the first to go into action. With the rebel stronghold in Benghazi threatened by the advancing tanks, urgent intervention was needed, they said.
Some French commentators have also pointed out, however, that the first French jets entered Libyan airspace many hours before anti-aircraft defences were pummelled by US and British missiles and planes on Saturday night. The French pilots were, therefore, at greater risk of being shot down.Reuse content