PARIS – After 34 years, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, formerly among the most ostracized men in the world, returned to the heart of Western civilization for a five-day “official” visit to the French capital, including dinner Monday night at the presidential palace.
The leader of oil-rich Libya came with his own Bedouin tent for entertaining and an open checkbook to buy billions of euros in French goods – including 21 Airbus planes, fighter jets and a nuclear-powered desalinization plant for making drinkable water.
The visit, although publicly denounced by many people here, including the French human-rights minister, is the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of a former revolutionary who seized power at 27 in 1969 and proceeded to earn a reputation for treachery by diverting Libya’s oil wealth to support rebels and Islamic militants. Former President Reagan labeled him “the mad dog.”
Gadhafi, 65, has since made a big investment in not being an outlaw by owning up to a series of Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks and paying millions of dollars in compensation for the downing of a commercial jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and of another 10 months later over the desert of Niger in western Africa. In 2003, Gadhafi negotiated his way to further respectability with a decision to give up his program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Gadhafi was received in Brussels, Belgium, at the European Parliament in 2004, and several heads of state – including Britain’s Tony Blair and France’s Jacques Chirac – have visited Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in recent years.
But the last barrier to reciprocal invitations was the imprisonment of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were charged with infecting Libyan children with HIV/AIDS. After international diplomats spent months negotiating for their release, French President Nicolas Sarkozy closed the deal in July when his then-wife, Cecilia, went to Tripoli. Sarkozy traveled to Tripoli after their release and assured Gadhafi that he would receive lucrative French contracts. Sarkozy also extended the red-carpet invitation to Paris.