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France's fight at the UN

Gerard Longuet, left, France's defence minister, briefs media in Paris on the Cote d'Ivoire crisis after Gbagbo's arrest [AFP]By Kristen Saloomey

Being sceptical is part of being a journalist.

Especially at the United Nations, where every action - and every failure to act - is influenced by the political interests of countries who sit on the Security Council. This is  particularly true of the permanent five members, all of whom have the power to veto any resolution that comes their way.

So it is impossible not to ask: What is motivating France in aggressively championing international military intervention in Libya and Cote D'Ivoire?

The Security Council resolutions authorising the use of force in these two domestic conflicts, the first written by France and the UK, the second by France and Nigeria, were justified by the need to protect civilians who were increasingly being targeted in both domestic conflicts.

But why choose these two countries to make a stand when civilians fighting for democracy are under fire in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere?

Where was the UN Security Council when peaceful Egyptians stood up to tanks in Tahrir Square? Or when thousands of Tamils were caught in the crossfire of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009?

"Frankly, we did it because we could," France's ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, told me when we sat down for an interview recently at the French mission.

Domestic affairs

In Libya, the support of former Libyan officials and the Arab League were key to winning over countries like Russia and China, which are generally reluctant to intervene in domestic affairs that are not necessarily a threat to international peace and security, said Araud. And no one was willing to stand up for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

"First, it was the urgency," said Araud of Security Council Resolution 1973. "If Gaddafi had taken Benghazi, it would have been a bloodbath. Secondly, we had the request of regional organisations, so there was the emotion of world public opinion. And Gaddafi was really the bad guy, so we could do it."

Resolution 1973 set the stage for 1975, authorising unusually robust UN action in Cote D'Ivoire. UN and French helicopters took out heavy weapons which they said were being used against civilians and peacekeepers.

Doing so allowed forces loyal to internationally recognised president, Alessane Outarra, to finally unseat former president Laurent Gbagbo from power, but also opened the door to critics like Russia's freign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who accused the UN of picking sides in an internal dispute.

Some experts believe France is acting in its own self-interest in Libya and Cote D'Ivoire.

Arthur Goldhammer, a writer and translator at Harvard University's Minda de Gunzberg, argues in Foreign Policy magazine that France's aggressive posture in Libya is due to "Nicolas Sarkozy’s misguided quest for glory".

With waning popularity at home, the French president may have believed that leading a high-minded intervention could help him in next year's election.

He may also have wanted to cover up his government's embarrassing response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia, which led to the resignation of his former foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie.

 In addition to some questionable personal dealings with cronies of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Alliot-Marie had offered to send French riot police to train Tunisian counterparts in crowd-control techniques.

"Sarkozy likes to stress the humanitarian motive, which is perfectly legitimate, and 'shared democratic values', which the rebels may or may not in fact hold," Goldhammer  writes. "But he also hoped to draw a veil over earlier disarray in his government's response to the 'Arab spring'."

Economic motive?

What about Cote D'Ivoire, is there an economic motive?

"The French trade, with all of Africa, it's two per cent of our trade," said Araud, who insists it was simply the right thing to do.

"It's simply that we are the former colonial power - which means that in France we have people that care about Cote d'Ivoire, we have an Ivorian community in France, and we have a French community in Abidjan. So it's not a question of interest, it's a question of trying to avoid the worst in a country that we know very well."

Araud points out that France and the UK had called for Security Council action in other emergencies, like Sri Lanka where, without the support of regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) they were rebuffed.

In 2005, in the wake of massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, the UN's member states agreed that the UN had a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their own government will not.

Until now, it has been an agreement in theory - not practice.

"I hope it is a precedent ... but I don't know if it is possible because we are living in the real world," Araud said.  "It's three steps forward, two steps back."

Already, some members of the Security Council have expressed concern that it is overstepping its bounds.

But for those who believe in the responsibility to protect civilians, the French - whatever their motives - have been leading the way.

Kristen Saloomey is Al Jazeera's correspondent in New York.

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