Sarko strikes a pose

The French president's bellicosity masks his lack of substance.

The sudden U-turn by President Nicolas Sar­kozy, in which he abandoned cosy relations with Middle Eastern dictators in favour of a warlike pose in defence of oppressed and unarmed peoples, is rather perplexing. One explanation for it could be the threat of an electoral rout that the president's party faces in France. But that is unlikely: the Libyan cause is not especially popular and public opinion fears an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict.

Furthermore, the president's reputation is so badly damaged that it would be impossible for a foreign adventure - even a successful one - to change the stakes electorally. And in any event, the chances are slim of this operation being a glittering success in the short term.

There could be a more cynical motive - to jump on the bandwagon of "democratisation" and if possible grab hold of the reins, so that France regains its regional standing along with a prime role in defining European policy across the Mediterranean. This would make up for the failure of the "Mediterranean Union" (a project Sarkozy championed during his 2007 presidential campaign), conceived as it was in terms of regimes and not people.

This would have the advantage of making Sarkozy look like a proper statesman; cynical, for sure, but capable of envisaging a long-term strategy. This long-term explanation fits well enough with the urgency of the moment: as the fall of Benghazi loomed, it was necessary to act quickly, especially as France had reached the point of no return. Given that reconciliation with Gaddafi was no longer possible, everything had to be done to ensure his departure.

But this rational explanation does not fit with the hesitations, flip-flops and sudden whims characteristic of any policy carried out under the president's aegis. It is as if, to him, "communication" matters more than strategy, and admiring op-eds by public intellectuals matter more than public opinion. Nobody in France is taken in any longer by the president's posturing and spin, and if the Libyan adventure turns sour, it will count against Sarkozy.

For the president, "position" comes before strategy: fire the first shots, make it seem as if France is directing operations (when it's really the Americans) and behave as a kind of president of Europe - which is the best way to weaken France's role, because its partners will do everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen again. This posturing causes as much concern in France as abroad, because it has too often gone hand in hand with a lack of consistency, as was the case with his inability to push through the Mediterranean Union.

Sarkozy's volte-face, carried out in the space of a few weeks, is cause for scepticism. Above all, it leaves the president exposed if the best-case scenario does not unfold - that is, a rapid seizure of power by the Libyan rebels under the aerial protection of Nato, followed by an end to the fighting and the establishment of a provisional government. One can - and must - wish for such an outcome, but it is far from being the most likely.

There is a fundamental problem facing all the participants here, not just France: whatever the reasons for the decision to intervene, and whatever the circumstances in which it was taken, the objectives are unclear. And here the patterns established in Iraq and Afghanistan are being reproduced: were those interventions only intended to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, or were they the prelude to "state-building", "peacekeeping", "democratisation" and so on?

By offering to protect the Libyan opposition, the west is, in effect, engaged in helping it take power and therefore in overthrowing Gaddafi. To abandon an opposition that could not win alone would be an admission of defeat and would leave the door open for Gaddafi to take revenge. The timing is crucial here: neither the fragile coalition assembled for the intervention nor the official war aims (to support democratisation, but not regime change) will prevent a stalemate in the conflict. If this happens, then Sarkozy's emotional savvy and media management will be of no help to him.

The great strength of the movement for democracy in Arab countries is that it is both indigenous and national. That is why it has flourished today, rather than after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

To see it develop in the shadow of Nato warplanes (even if the west is intervening under a different name) risks depriving it precisely of its political legitimacy and justifies other interventions, such as the Saudi army's support for the emir of Bahrain in his struggle against his own people. (And what if Iran sends its warplanes to Bahrain to prevent Saudi armoured cars from firing on civilians?)

The old suspicion of double standards will resurface, casting doubt on the whole of western policy in the region: why single out one dictator for toppling while letting it be understood that another has a free hand to oppress his own people?

How is it possible to develop a strategy that recognises people's aspirations, security needs and the regional balance of power when we are caught between a discourse of moral obligation in which few people believe, and the cynicism of a realpolitik that has never been realistic, because it believes in the stability of dictatorships?

We would have to begin by identifying the tangible problems at hand, instead of bandying about hollow notions such as "terrorism", "fear of immigration" and "the Muslim threat". In their place would be a political analysis of
social movements.

It has been clear since 1991 and the first Gulf war that there is no such thing as a surgical intervention; and that a UN Security Council resolution provides a legal framework but cannot define a military strategy. It is also clear that if Gaddafi holds on to power in any form it will be perceived as a defeat for the west and will make it impossible, or at least extremely costly, to protect Libya's civilian population.

This, perhaps, should have been considered before now. l

Olivier Roy is professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence. His most recent book is "Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways" (C Hurst & Co, £20)

This commentary, written exclusively for the NS, was translated by Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.