‘To regain its standing in Libya, France must restore the credibility it lost’
Posted – 30th March 2021
France reopened its embassy in Tripoli on Monday after a seven-year closure, in a show of support for Libya’s new unity government. A decade after French forces helped topple strongman Muammar Gaddafi, FRANCE 24 takes a look at France’s damaged standing in the North African country in an interview with Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui.
Announcing plans to reopen the embassy earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said France owed “a debt to Libya and the Libyans for a decade of disorder” – a reference to the 10 years of turmoil and violence that followed the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.
Macron was speaking after a meeting in Paris with Mohammed al-Menfi, the head of Libya’s presidential council. He promised France’s “full support” to the country’s transitional government, which took over earlier this month from two rival administrations that ruled Libya’s eastern and western regions.
France had positioned itself as a mediator in the tussle pitting the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which governed western Libya, against the eastern forces loyal to the renegade military commander General Khalifa Haftar. But its reputation as an honest broker was tarnished by accusations it secretly sided with Haftar, seeing in him a bulwark against terrorism – claims Macron repeatedly rejected.
While Haftar’s final defeat last year helped pave the way for a new unity government, the Libyan reset has also underscored the shifting power-play in the war-torn North African country, cementing the growing Turkish and Russian clout. FRANCE 24 spoke to Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, about France’s efforts to restore its reputation and influence in the country.
Jalel Harchaoui: The embassy is reopening in a very specific context. The political and security situations have altered dramatically over the past few months, surprising some foreign players like France, which had followed the process from the sidelines and treated it with a degree of scepticism. Naturally, Paris is now keen to exploit the new situation in Libya. The country’s political climate has changed considerably, thanks to a new style of governance embodied by the prime minister, a former businessman. However, there are other changes the French will have to deal with, most notably the growing Turkish and Russian presence. France can always lament Turkey’s encroachment but it is powerless to halt it. The Turks are settled for the long term in the country, from where they will hold on to military bases.
In speaking of a French “debt” towards Libya, has Macron acknowledged a failure of French diplomacy in the country?
In using the word debt, Macron appeared to be asking for a chance to make up for the past and play a part in the new Libya. But the reset underway in the country does not necessarily mean France will be able to regain its standing there. It will first have to restore the credibility it lost by offering political and diplomatic support to General Haftar, who has since been pushed out of the picture. By referring to Libya’s “decade of disorder”, Macron was hoping to dissociate himself from his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who sought to topple Gaddafi in 2011. However, one mustn’t forget that Libyans today are far more traumatised by Haftar’s deadly offensive on Tripoli in 2019. The memory of the fighting, in which thousands were killed, is still raw. And then there’s the millions of dollars lost because of the oil blockade imposed by Haftar, in the midst of economic and health crises. In the eyes of many Libyans today, France’s real failure is to have played peace broker while betting on a warmonger whom future historians are unlikely to treat kindly.
How can France restore its credibility and play a role in Libya?
Post-Gaddafi Libya is essentially open to Europe and, as such, Libyans pay close attention to what France says or does. But it is not certain that this will last. Other powers that are neither African nor European are setting foot in the country, like Turkey and Russia. Even China could play a bigger part in Libya’s reconstruction than France. Right now we’re seeing a flurry of French diplomatic activity in Libya, but France needs a coherent strategy with specific objectives that lead to measurable results. There are many areas in which France can have a positive impact, knowing that Libyans are generally appreciative and mindful of such gestures. But it is important to secure tangible results. As we have seen in Lebanon, in the wake of the Beirut port blast last year, French diplomacy can be proactive and yet produce zero results.
FRANCE24 – Marc Daou
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