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France caught between Libya, nuke crisis

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Paris (UPI) Mar 17, 2011
France has to battle on two fronts these days: At the United Nations, Paris is pushing hard for a no-fly zone over Libya; at home, it's scrambling to defend nuclear power amid the Japanese reactor crisis.

On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had more important things than to be in Berlin. He canceled meetings in the German capital and flew to New York to attend a U.N. meeting on Libya.

Juppe wants to lobby for a resolution, drafted in part by France, that aims to use a no-fly zone to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from unleashing his military on rebel positions. The outcome of a U.N. Security Council vote on the resolution is still up in the air.

Paris has been one of the most outspoken proponents of military action against pro-Gadhafi forces, which have been pounding rebels all over the North African country with warplanes and heavy artillery. Last week, France became the first nation to officially recognize the Libyan opposition.

So far, however, Juppe and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have failed to convince their allies of the necessity of a no-fly zone, which would mean that Libyan planes would have to remain grounded or face being shot down by Western forces. It could also mean targeted bombings of Libyan air defense positions.

Despite backing from the Arab League for such a move, Germany, Russia and China have in the past spoken out against military intervention. While the United States would like to see the rebels succeed, the U.S. administration has stopped short of calling for foreign troops.

Two weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama said Gadhafi must go; Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said all options to make him leave power remain on the table but, to the ears of Libyan rebels, that threat sounds increasingly hollow.

While they're still holding on to key positions in the country's East, an increasing number of civilian regime opponents are fleeing the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, fearing an imminent defeat and a brutal crackdown by regime forces.

One of the Libyans who left Benghazi for neighboring Egypt, 18-year-old teenager Asma, was asked by an NPR reporter what she wanted the West to do to help the rebels.

"No-fly zone. Anything," she answered. "Just don't stand there and watch us die like -- you're going to take his money and, like, his account banks stopped. He's not going to stop. He's on the way to Benghazi."

The plight of Libyans in some way has been overshadowed by the tragedy that has unfolded over the past days in Japan, where an earthquake and a tsunami have brought several nuclear reactors on the brink of a nuclear meltdown. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands were evacuated from the area close to the reactors.

France is instrumental in orchestrating a response to the Libyan crisis and it's also a key nuclear nation in the heart of Europe. The world's second-largest nuclear nation behind the United States, France is home to 58 reactors that produce roughly 80 percent of the country's electricity needs.

The country's nuclear corporations EDF and Areva aim to export reactors to Eastern Europe, Britain, China and the United States.

Neighboring Germany has already shut down seven reactors and is investigating the safety of all of its 17 plants; China and Switzerland have halted planning for new plants.

Sarkozy was quoted as saying Wednesday by The New York Times that the events in Japan had "provoked across the world a number of questions about the safety of nuclear power stations and the energy mix."

The French opposition has rallied amid the Japanese crisis. Some have called for a referendum on nuclear power, others have demanded that France shut down its plants as soon as possible.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has called these demands "absurd."

Even experts agree that it's unrealistic to abruptly ditch nuclear power given the country's extremely high dependence on it. For now, Paris said it would check the safety of all its reactors.

Sarkozy admitted Wednesday that the events in Japan raised questions regarding the safety of nuclear plants.

He added, however, that "France has chosen nuclear energy, which is an essential element of its energy independence and the struggle against greenhouse gases."

"I remain convinced of the relevance today of those choices," he was quoted by the Times as saying.

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