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“France must restore its credibility to hope to regain a foothold in Libya”

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                In difficulty in recent years in Libya, due to its proximity to one of the actors in the conflict, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, France seeks to turn the page and reopens, Monday, its embassy in Tripoli, in favor of a political upturn.  The opportunity to focus on Franco-Libyan relations with researcher Jalel Harchaoui. 

                                    <p>The French Embassy in Libya is finally reopening its doors, after seven years of closure.  The tricolor will fly again, Monday, March 29, on the grounds of the diplomatic building in Tripoli.  A sign of the times and of the pacification of the country, plagued by war, a new phase of transition takes place with the appointment of an interim government, which, on March 10, obtained the confidence of Parliament.

On March 23, President Emmanuel Macron received the President of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohammed el-Menfi, and pledged “full support” to the new authorities tasked with organizing national elections on 24 December.

“It is not simply a support of words or facade, it is a complete support which will be that of France”, indicated the head of state. Because “we have a debt towards Libya and the Libyans, very clear, which is a decade of disorder” he added. A chaos and a war following the fall of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, overthrown by his people after a Western military intervention, in which France was one of the main actors.

While it appeared out of the game compared to foreign powers like Russia and Turkey, very involved in the Libyan conflict, Paris seeks to replace itself while the counters seem to be reset in Libya.

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France had positioned itself as a mediating power in the conflict between the two camps which clashed for power in Libya:that of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strong man of eastern Libya, against the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, recognized by the international community. Paris had even organized several meetings between Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj in July 2017, then in May 2018, before being accused of playing a double game because of his proximity, behind the scenes, with the marshal, considered a bulwark in the terrorism. And this, even if Paris had refuted any military support for the Marshal’s offensive against Tripoli, launched in April 2019.

To understand the current reality of Franco-Libyan relations, France 24 interviewed Jalel Harchaoui, specialist in Libya and researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime [l’Initiative mondiale contre la criminalité transnationale organisée], an NGO based in Geneva.

France 24: How do you analyze the reopening of a French embassy in Libya?

Jahleel Harchaoui: The embassy will reopen in a very specific context. Security, the level of violence and political advances have evolved extremely quickly in recent months in Libya, to the point of surprising many foreign actors, such as France, who were on the margins of the political process and who were watching it with skepticism. Logically, the Elysee seeks to take advantage of a new deal in Libya, where the political atmosphere has changed thanks to a new style of governance embodied by the Prime Minister who is a businessman. But there is also a new reality in this country with in particular the presence of Turkey and Russia, with which the French will have to come to terms. Paris may deplore it, and it is the sign of a certain impotence, nobody will be able to dislodge the Turks who are on course to take root permanently in Libya, where they will in particular keep military bases.

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In his speech Emmanuel Macron referred to a dahead. Do you see a failure of the diplomacy french in Libya?

Referring to a debt, President Macron seems to be saying “give me a chance to catch up and play a role in the new Libya”. But if the counters seem to be reset in Libya, it is not certain that France can regain a foothold in this country and seize all the opportunities that are offered. Because for that, it will first have to restore its credibility tarnished by its political and diplomatic support for Marshal Haftar who was expelled from the Libyan equation by force in May-June 2020. And if Emmanuel Macron spoke of a decade of disorder going back to 2011, it is to try to distance himself from the policies and choices of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy who wanted to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. But we must keep in mind that the Libyans are more traumatized by the year 2019 and the murderous offensive of Marshal Haftar on Tripoli. It is much fresher in their memory and cost thousands of lives and much destruction, not to mention the millions of dollars in financial losses caused by an oil blockade in the midst of an economic and health crisis. And in the eyes of the Libyans, the failure of France, the one that costs it today, is that of having wanted to play the intermediary while betting on the warmongering of a failed man who could be severely judged by the history. Knowing that Haftar began his military campaign in Cyrenaica and is still there, despite the support of the United Arab Emirates, which the French had aligned themselves with.

How to restore this credibility? What role can France play?

Post-Gaddafi Libya is quite open to Europe, and Libyans are very careful about what France does and what she says. But it is not guaranteed that this will last, because there are powers which are neither African nor European, which are settling in the Libyan landscape like Turkey and Russia. Even China could play a more important role than France in the reconstruction of the country. For the moment there is a French diplomatic agitation on the Libyan dossier, but a strategy is needed which combines coherence and action with precise objectives oriented towards measurable results. There are many areas in which France can act positively knowing that Libyans are sensitive to this, and tend to remember it and give the benefit of the doubt. But we have to be effective, because we have seen that in Lebanon, after the explosions at the port of Beirut in August 2020, there was French diplomatic agitation but it produced no results.


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