PARIS, France (Reuters) -- The release of six foreign medics by Libya is a fresh diplomatic coup for French leader Nicolas Sarkozy but the unorthodox role played by his wife in securing their freedom has sparked criticism at home.
Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov, left, talks to France's first lady Cecilia Sarkozy, right, at Sofia airport.
Sarkozy made the release of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, a priority when he became president in May.
He twice dispatched his wife Cecilia and chief of staff Claude Gueant to Tripoli and they were rewarded when the medics flew to freedom in Bulgaria on a French presidential jet, ending eight years of detention.
French first ladies have traditionally taken a back seat while their husbands ran the country but that could change with Cecilia Sarkozy, a willowy former model briefly estranged from her husband in 2005.
However, left-wing critics accuse the Sarkozys of crudely gate-crashing a European Union mission. Some EU officials have privately expressed exasperation at what they regard as a bid by the energetic French president to steal their glory over Libya.
"What democratic legitimacy do they have, save that she is the wife of the president and he was appointed secretary general of the Elysee?" Socialist deputy Benoit Hamon said of Cecilia and Gueant.
Senior Socialist politician Pierre Moscovici, a former Europe minister, contrasted years of patient EU effort with the "more spectacular" intervention of the Sarkozy family.
"We can ask questions...about the conduct of French diplomacy, about who does what, about who is in charge," he told LCI television. He called for more openness about the way French diplomacy was conducted and the terms of the deal with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The medics' release is the latest success for "Super Sarko", the ironic moniker given him by French media.
In two months in office he has forged a broad consensus on EU reform, won grudging EU acceptance France will miss a deficit reduction target and backing for a Frenchman to run the International Monetary Fund.
Socialists, wrong-footed by Sarkozy's inclusion of leftists in his government and a commission to reform the constitution, have attacked Sarkozy for using unelected and unaccountable officials as his emissaries.
"Who are all these people who surround Nicolas Sarkozy? Who are all these people in this entourage who enjoy considerable prerogatives and who, apparently, are conducting the policies of France?" Hamon asked.
Sarkozy brushed off the attacks and said results were what mattered.
"This is not a new form of diplomacy. There was a problem that needed solving. We solved it. Full stop. We didn't do it alone but we solved it, that's what counts," he told reporters.
One of the freed nurses had told him she was the "happiest woman in the world," he said.
"She didn't ask me, 'what is the status of your wife? How do things work with Bernard Kouchner, did you keep Francois Fillon informed," he said, referring to his foreign minister and prime minister.
Francois Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said Sarkozy's critics had missed the point.
"These guys should really relax a little bit. When you release hostages, you don't play by Marquess of Queensberry rules," Heisbourg said.
Sarkozy had helped resolve a humanitarian crisis and cleared a roadblock to an official visit to Libya on Wednesday that could spawn commercial, as well as political, benefits.
"It's a new style, high profile, high gain, potentially high loss, requiring a very high level of energy, requiring extremely fine judgment for the nature of the situation," Heisbourg said. E-mail to a friend
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