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France Flexing Military Muscles in Libya, Former Colony Ivory Coast

April 7, 2011 at 6:28 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For all the talk recently over the United States being involved in three conflicts abroad at the same time, it’s been largely overlooked that another country is equally engaged these days: France.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The date was March 19, when France was first to send warplanes into action over Libya, enforcing a no-fly zone with airstrikes.

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the action at a Paris summit of world leaders and diplomats.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, French president (through translator): We do this to protect civilians from the murderous mandate of a regime that, by murdering its own people, has lost all legitimacy. In addition to its Arab, European and North American partners, France is committed to playing its role, its role before history.

MARGARET WARNER: France also showed its military muscle this week in its former African colony, Ivory Coast, sending helicopter gunships to beef up U.N. peacekeeping forces trying to oust President Laurent Gbagbo. He’s refused to step down after losing last fall’s election.

Early today, French soldiers rappelled from a helicopter to rescue Japan’s ambassador to Ivory Coast and seven of his colleagues.

YOSHIFUMI OKAMURA, Japanese ambassador to Ivory Coast (through translator): Mercenaries took over my residence, but in the end, I was saved by French troops, with their professional work.

MARGARET WARNER: France also remains engaged in the war in Afghanistan, with nearly 4,000 troops still stationed there.

But it’s the crisis in Libya where Paris has most visibly taken on a leadership role. President Sarkozy spoke out early against Moammar Gadhafi. And he was the first foreign leader to recognize the rebels as Libya’s legitimate government, to the surprise of some of his allies.

In mid-March, he worked with the British to push the U.N. Security Council to adopt a no-fly-zone resolution, despite Washington’s initial wariness.

NICOLAS SARKOZY (through translator): With David Cameron, British and French, we said that we are available, with the condition that the United Nations wishes it, that the Arab League accepts it, and that the Libyan authorities that we want to be recognized desires it, for targeted actions, purely defensive, and only if Mr. Gadhafi uses chemical weapons or the air force against his people demonstrating peacefully.

MARGARET WARNER: Celebrations rang out in Benghazi March 18 after the Security Council authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces.

But the next day, even before the Paris summit on finalizing the mission had ended, France launched its initial strikes, again surprising the U.S. and other NATO allies. The mission has been popular in France so far, even though Sarkozy’s own approval ratings are at an all-time low, just a year before he faces re-election.

Yet, now that the U.S. has handed off the main military role in NATO’s Libya mission, leaving France and Britain in the forefront, the Libyan rebels are complaining that they’re no longer getting robust enough air support.