Gadhafi's visit to France provokes storm of criticism

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi met with French lawmakers on Tuesday, although more than half boycotted the event to protest the presence in a parliamentary building of a man long considered a pariah for his support of state terrorism. Gadhafi, wearing a black suit and long black cape, met with lawmakers at the residence of the speaker of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, on the second day of an official visit to France marked by the signing of some €10 billion ((US$14.7 billion) in contracts. "Libya has become a client like any other," presidential spokesman David Martinon told LCI television. President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the official visit, saying it was France's duty to encourage states that move toward international respectability. He alluded to Gadhafi's formal renunciation of terrorism and his decision to dismantle a Libyan program meant to develop atomic bombs. A meeting with the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Bernard Accoyer, is a standard part of an official visit. It nevertheless added to the maelstrom of controversy that has surrounded the visit, which is scheduled to last six days. Rival Socialists, centrists and even some members of Sarkozy's conservative party decried the Libyan leader's parliamentary visit. Some 80 lawmakers were invited, mainly heads of groups or commissions, but numerous chairs were empty. Gadhafi's place "is not at the National Assembly," said conservative lawmaker Herve Mariton. "The National Assembly is not just any place," said Socialist group leader Jean-Marc Ayrault. It is "part of a long tradition of human rights." State-run France-2 television reported that Gadhafi had asked to address parliamentarians in the chamber itself, a rare privilege for some heads of state, but was refused. Following Gadhafi's meeting with Sarkozy on Monday, two Libyan airlines announced a deal to buy 21 Airbus planes. The value of the deal was not immediately given, but one of Gadhafi's sons was quoted by Le Figaro newspaper as saying it was worth €3 billion (US$4.4 billion). Both sides also signed an accord to develop one or more civilian nuclear reactors. The reactors would be used to desalinate sea water or exploit Libya's uranium riches, Sarkozy's office said. French politicians, philosophers and others railed against the deals and even the government's own Human Rights Minister joined in the outcry, saying it would be "indecent" for Gadhafi's visit to be "summed up with the signing of contracts." Gadhafi was long a vocal champion of armed struggle and a sponsor of state terrorism. But Libya started moving back into the international fold with its 2003 decision to dismantle its nuclear arms program. The same year, it paid compensation to families of victims of the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to compensate the families of the 170 victims of the 1989 bombing of a French UTA passenger jet. The final obstacle was lifted when Gadhafi freed six medics - five Bulgarians and one Palestinian - who had been jailed for eight years - following negotiations with Cecilia Sarkozy, the French president's former wife.