March 27, 2008 / 11:14 AM / in 9 years

French left takes aim at Sarkozy on Afghan troops

<p>French President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses members of both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, in London on March 26, 2008.Stephen Hird</p>

PARIS (Reuters) - Leaders of France's opposition Socialist Party criticized President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday for offering to send more troops to Afghanistan and for making the controversial announcement in the British parliament.

Sarkozy made a rare address by a foreign head of state to Britain's parliament on Wednesday and promised to send additional soldiers to fight the Taliban if NATO backed his proposal for a broader, coordinated Afghan strategy.

France already has some 1,500 troops in Afghanistan and the Socialists have demanded a parliamentary debate in Paris before any more soldiers are sent there.

"What surprised me, perhaps shocked me, is that Nicolas Sarkozy talked about France's commitments in Afghanistan before British parliamentarians when there hasn't been the slightest debate before French parliamentarians," said Segolene Royal, the defeated Socialist candidate in the 2007 elections.

Sarkozy, speaking in London, rejected the opposition's concerns and said there would be a full opportunity for the National Assembly to debate the issue.

"I have spoken about it myself to the president of the National Assembly," he said at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "I want this debate."

Royal said she opposed any further increase in French troop numbers in Afghanistan.

"I am not in favor of any strengthening of France's forces in Afghanistan in the current context when one doesn't know the risks they will face or what guarantees have been taken to protect our soldiers," she told RTL radio.

The national secretary of the Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, also came out forcibly against the move.

"I consider that any additional deployment of French forces to Afghanistan is an error," Hollande told LCI television.

Sarkozy is expected to give full details of the French initiative at a NATO summit in Romania next month.

French officials speaking off the record have indicated that Paris is ready to send several hundred combat troops to eastern Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, but say Sarkozy wants the allies to define a clear policy for the country.

In particular, he wants guarantees that the allies will leave Afghanistan together rather than unilaterally and will do more to strengthen civilian aid programmes.

Under the French constitution, a president can send troops into combat zones without the approval of parliament, but ministers have promised the Socialists a debate on Afghanistan.

Reporting by Gerard Bon, writing by Crispian Balmer and James Mackenzie, editing by Tim Pearce

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