Sarkozy business partners raise eyebrows

( AP ) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to congratulate Vladimir Putin after elections roundly considered undemocratic, and now has rolled out the red carpet for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Though some feel betrayed by a president who once pledged to defend the world's oppressed, Sarkozy's message is clear: In diplomacy, values matter, but French business interests matter perhaps even more.

Libya and France were signing $14.6 billion in deals during Gadhafi's much-criticized trip to France this week, for Airbus jets, nuclear energy and military equipment.

Sarkozy maintains he is teaching a lesson that he hopes pariah states will heed: Libya is being rewarded because Gadhafi renounced state sponsorship of terrorism and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and should be encouraged in his quest for international respectability.

Meanwhile, in courting contracts with Libya, China and Russia, Sarkozy is also fulfilling another pledge he made during his campaign for the presidency. He wants to make France's sluggish economy more competitive in the global marketplace.

" Libya has again become a client like any other," presidential spokesman David Martinon told LCI television.

Many of Sarkozy's compatriots disagree. They point to continued human rights abuses in Libya, a country with a vast network of informants who monitor residents' movements and where authorities brook little dissent in media or politics.

Sarkozy's critics say he has compromised France's role as the cradle of human rights and reneged on pledges made during his presidential campaign last spring to break with policies of past French leaders seen as coddling dictators.

In some ways, Sarkozy's foreign policy is beginning to resemble the doctrine of national interest espoused by his predecessor, Jacques Chirac - and which he had promised to overturn.

Sarkozy started off his tenure in May with a dramatic show of foreign policy activism, making Darfur a top diplomatic priority and persuading Colombia to free a jailed guerrilla. His appointment of socialist Bernard Kouchner, the outspoken former leader of Doctors Without Borders, sent out a signal that France was staking out a new role on the world stage.

But the recent business deals are prompting a rethinking of what that role is.

When Gadhafi visited France's lower house of parliament Tuesday, more than half the lawmakers invited boycotted his appearance in their hallowed halls. The boycotters came from the political left, center and even Sarkozy's conservative party.

"The National Assembly is not just any place," said Socialist leader Jean-Marc Ayrault. It is "part of a long tradition of human rights."

In a key diplomatic speech in August, Sarkozy pledged to toe a firmer line against Russia and China than Chirac had. Yet Sarkozy's administration has been upfront about not wanting to lose out on international business deals by taking too principled a diplomatic stance.

It all marks a contrast to conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who ruffled Chinese feathers by meeting with the Dalai Lama last month and has been criticized by her center-left coalition partners for endangering German economic interests.

Soon after Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama, Sarkozy went to China on a visit that focused on trade and business - and notably not on human rights. His delegation landed major contracts for Airbus and French nuclear manufacturer Areva.

After a "friendly" visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October, Sarkozy sent a speedy congratulatory note to Putin after parliamentary elections last week that were snubbed by leading international observers because they were so skewed in favor of the ruling party.

Days later, France's Renault SA was chosen as a strategic partner for Russia's biggest carmaker, AvtoVaz, beating out U.S. and Italian rivals.

"What is different with Sarkozy is that he speaks frankly about ... money," said Jean-Daniel Levy of the CSA polling agency. "He is not hiding his defense of French interests."

A former diplomatic adviser put it more bluntly.

"Chief executives will be the new diplomats," said Jean-Louis Guigou, who launched a foundation at the French Foreign Ministry on Tuesday bringing together executives from 50 companies around the Mediterranean basin. The project is part of Sarkozy's broader push for a Mediterranean Union to bind the vastly diverse nations north and south of the sea.

Activists from watchdog Reporters Without Borders staged a protest Tuesday urging Sarkozy to keep values on his diplomatic radar.

"Moammar Gadhafi and Nicolas Sarkozy will sign commercial accords. France must also demand freedoms," read posters at the rally near the National Assembly.

Gendarmes barred the group from marching toward the parliament entrance and kept them at a distance for two hours, the group said in a statement.

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