By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Paris is playing a trail-blazing role in the international response to the Libyan uprising in the hope it can make a mark on whatever emerges from upheaval across the Arab world, and make up for lost diplomatic confidence.
In the latest move, France on Thursday recognized the rebel Libyan National Council, the first country to formally reject the government in Tripoli led by Muammar Gaddafi.
Like many others, France was caught hopping by the revolt in Tunisia that started it all. President Nicolas Sarkozy admits his country underestimated the events that led to the ouster of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January.
That, and turf wars between the French foreign ministry and the Elysee Palace, eroded France's confidence in its own foreign policy, and is now fuelling the desire to engineer a comeback through strident action.
"From the start we've been absent from this extraordinarily positive movement in North Africa," said Dominique Paille, a member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party.
"We started very badly .... and since then we have been a little afraid. We must take a certain leadership again."
In a country that boasts one of the world's most extensive networks of diplomats, it is a question of pride, fueled by the fear that globalization and the rise of other economic powers may have a flipside -- waning French clout.
"What is happening is that France is once again taking the initiative as it has in the past," said Axel Poniatowski, head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee. "There was a period of turbulence in which everybody was taken by surprise and waiting to see what happens."
Alain Juppe, a heavy-hitting former prime minister who held the same post nearly 20 years ago, is back in charge as foreign minister and few politicians doubt his capacity to reverse what he said just a few months earlier was a dangerous deterioration in the engine room of French diplomacy.
In the space of two weeks Juppe has gone to some lengths to make France look more in touch.
His first official trip was to Cairo, where, unlike other senior Western figures, he met young people involved in ousting Hosni Mubarak as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But it is in Libya where France is betting it will make an impact. Sarkozy met members of the Libyan National Council at the Elysee before the announcement that France would recognize the rebel body as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, and French diplomats told reporters Paris hopes the rest of Europe would follow the example.
France was also first to condemn Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, demand his departure and offer humanitarian aid.
It called for sanctions early on and with Britain is driving efforts to secure U.N. support for a resolution that would allow the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations says Paris has stuck its neck out and needed to.
"We can't accept the status quo (in Libya) and have gone too far to step back," Moisi said. "The question now is what we can really do beyond words. For France, it is a way to get credibility in the international community and its citizens."
JUPPE COUNTS, FRANCE POSITIONS ITSELF
Juppe comes to the job after two ministers regarded by many as lightweights. His immediate predecessor, Michele Alliot-Marie, was dropped after a series of serious faux-pas including a family holiday in Tunisia during the uprising.
Moisi describes him as a man with "gravitas" who understands what is at stake. Unlike recent foreign ministers, he enjoys a degree of independence from, and even influence over, Sarkozy and Sarkozy's Elysee Palace advisers.
"The fact he is seasoned in foreign affairs and commands a great respect in the Arab world makes it easier for France in these difficult and uncertain times," said a Paris-based Arab diplomat. "After the great humbling in Tunisia, he couldn't have come at a better time and we're seeing that in Libya."
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Brian Love and Sonya Hepinstall)