Brickbats and plaudits for Sarkozy's Chad mission

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PARIS, Nov 5 (Reuters) President Nicolas Sarkozy won a mixture of sneers and cheers today for dashing to Chad and picking up seven Europeans embroiled in a child kidnapping case.

Critics accused the hyperactive French leader of looking to cash in on a scandal that has strained France's ties with Chad, while fans said he had pulled off a diplomatic coup, helping shore up relations with a long-standing African ally.

Sarkozy flew to Chad yesterday to collect three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants who had been arrested last month along with a group of self-proclaimed relief workers on a mission to airlift 103 African children to Europe.

The hastily arranged trip was a typical Sarkozy operation, winning massive media coverage back home and leaving the opposition to fume over his headline-grabbing tactics.

''You cannot run a state pretending you are Zorro,'' said senior Socialist parliamentarian, Jean-Louis Bianco.

''The fact that three French nationals and four Spaniards have been freed is clearly good news. But Nicolas Sarkozy cannot resist his permanent temptation to make it seem he is the only one doing things,'' Bianco told Le Parisien newspaper.

The front page of Le Monde daily showed a cartoon of Sarkozy dressed as the black-capped actionman Zorro, another newspaper dubbed him ''Sarkoman'', while Le Figaro daily approvingly compared him to Jack Bauer, the hero of US TV series ''24''.

''Welcome to Air Sarko,'' Liberation daily's headline said.

Yesterday's escapade was reminiscent of a high-profile operation in July when Sarkozy's then-wife, who has since divorced him, flew to Libya to pick up a group of Bulgarian medics convicted of infecting hundreds of children with HIV.

RESTLESS It also underscored his burning desire to be constantly on the move, undertaking as many journeys in a month as his more stately predecessor Jacques Chirac might have made in a year.

''Given Sarkozy's style, it would have been astonishing had he not gone to Chad,'' said commentator Pierre-Luc Seguillon, adding that the trip had helped hide the fact that France should never have let the relief workers reach Chad in the first place.

Ten Europeans remain jailed in Chad, including six members of the French group Zoe's Ark, who had tried to fly children to France saying they were orphans from Darfur. Local authorities said most of the children were from Chad and were not orphans.

French diplomats had questioned the group's motives ahead of its departure to Africa and critics have accused France's flamboyant Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, himself a former aid worker, of encouraging reckless overseas capers.

''(Kouchner's) alarmist comments on Darfur these past months, have thrown more oil on the fire than they have found solutions,'' L'Alsace regional daily wrote today.

Kouchner has repeatedly railed against the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan and pushed forcefully for the creation of a European Union peacekeeping force, which is due to start deploying this month in neighbouring Chad to protect refugees.

French officials had to work hard to convince Chad President Idriss Deby to sanction the EU force and some politicians and analysts questioned whether Sarkozy had travelled to Chad to ensure there was no belated change of heart over the deployment.

''This trip ... wasn't just a media coup, it was a diplomatic coup. Nicolas Sarkozy was trying by all means to save the (EU) force,'' political analyst Seguillon told LCI television.

REUTERS PD HS1849

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