Libya Tribune

By Essam AbdelShafy

France has been viewed as one of the most important international actors in the Libyan scene since the revolution of February 16, 2011, against the regime of Gaddafi, given its influence, and due to the fact that it led the NATO military operations launched to topple Gaddafi in March 2011, less than a month after the outbreak of the Libyan revolution.

Amid expansion of the French role during the past nine years, to the extent that it conflicts with some NATO member states, such as Italy and later Turkey, it is significant to know the map of the French policy’s strategic goals with respect to the Libyan issue, where there are three basic levels that can be distinguished, to clarify the pillars of this map:

First Level: Economic Goals and Interests

Within the framework of these goals and those interests, we can distinguish between the following:

(1) Libyan Oil and Gas

Libya is the fifth Arab country in terms of oil reserves, according to periodic reports issued by Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with reserves up to about 50 billion barrels; and estimates have also revealed that the Libyan natural gas reserves amount to about 1.5 trillion cubic meters.

The French goals in Libyan oil and gas do not stop at obtaining the largest share of Libyan oil exports, as France used to obtain 17% of these exports before the revolution, that rose to about 33% after that; and fuel in France consumes about 99% of its imports of Libyan oil.

However, there is another prominent goal, namely, the huge investments of French companies in Libyan oil and gas sectors. For example, the French “Total” company holds oil exploration rights for 75% of the Al Jarf oilfield, 30% of the Sharara oilfield, 24% of the Qaa’ Marzouk oilfield, 16% of the Waha oilfield. In addition, Total has also acquired 16.33% of the Waha Company, the most prominent and significant oil company in Libya.

(2) Investments and reconstruction in Libya

France seeks to have a considerable share of the reconstruction operations in Libya after the achievement of stability of the security situation there. In 2011, the French government estimated that Libya needs about $200 billion worth of reconstruction operations, while the British government estimated it at about $320 billion. But, taking into account the mass destruction and sabotage suffered by the Libyan state during the past nine years, these numbers can be doubled.

The significance of this goal to France is compounded by its competition with Turkey in the reconstruction projects, especially that Turkey has about $18 billion stuck in Libya, as it had signed joint investments in infrastructure worth about $24 billion with the Gaddafi regime. With the strained French-Turkish relations on the Libyan issue, France will be more eager to maximize its share in Libya’s reconstruction operations.

(3) France’s interests in Sahel and Sahara

France seeks to secure its economic interests in the countries of the Sahel and Sahara, adjacent to Libya, such as Chad, Niger, Mali and Algeria, where France controls the largest share of commercial exchanges with these countries and dominates its natural resources, such as uranium in Niger and gold in Mali, along with its huge investments in the oil and gas sectors in southern Algeria at the joint border between Libya and Algeria.

(4) Hindering Chinese expansion in North Africa

One of the goals of the direct military intervention of NATO forces in Libya in 2011, led by France, was to stop the Chinese economic expansion in North Africa, and the Sahel and the Sahara, especially in the construction sector, cheap exports, infrastructure and oil, as China was one of Gaddafi’s most important strategic partners.

Second Level: Military and Security Goals and Interests

Within the framework of these goals and those interests, we can distinguish between the following:

(1) Establishment of French military bases in Libya

France seeks to expand establishment of French military bases on Libyan soil, to protect and secure the oil wealth, and enhance security dimensions in a country that enjoys the longest shores of the southern Mediterranean (1850 km), especially that France has previous historical experience in this field, considering its military presence in the Libyan state of Fezzan from 1943 to 1951, which makes Paris see that it has a historical right, alongside Italy that was colonizing Libya from 1911 until independence.

Related to this goal, France also seeks to secure its military bases in the Sahel and Sahara region, where in Libya’s neighboring countries it has: three military bases in Chad, including N’djamena; two bases in Niger, Madama and Niamey; and two bases in Mali, Gao in the north, and Tessalit in the south, along with a French Special Force base in Burkina Faso, with about four thousand French soldiers, and dozens of aircraft and armored vehicles.

The significance of these bases lies in preserving the French role and influence in the African continent, against the background of its historical colonization of most of the continent countries, its keenness on maintaining exploitation of the wealth and capabilities of these countries, and to control their political systems.

(2) Securing French arms flow to Africa

France seeks to keep its arms flows to the countries of the region, especially Libya, whether directly or indirectly. There have been numerous official reports that France signed in 2018, for example, arms deals worth of €14.1 billion with Egypt and worth of €9.5 billion with UAE, the largest part of which was heading to the militias of the retired Maj. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, through the gates of the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime and the Egyptian military bases in Western Sahara. Moreover, France exported weapons worth of €295 million directly to Haftar.

(3) Supporting French intervention in Mali

Among the security and military objectives of French policy in Libya is to support France’s direct military intervention in Mali, as happened in 2013, as well as the Barkhan operation in what France calls as counterinsurgency, launched in August 2014, based in N’djamena, the capital of Chad, but includes five countries known as the G5 Sahel (Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania), for fighting jihadist groups, organized crime, and illegal immigration, among its declared goals.

Third Level: Political goals and interests

Within the framework of these goals and those interests, we can distinguish between the following:

(1) Retrieving the cost of toppling Gaddafi

France considers that it has the right to play an active role in Libya, based on its leadership of NATO operations in 2011, and wants to get the price for its role in toppling Gaddafi. Former French Defense Minister Gerard Longer stated at the time that his country cost $450 million between June and September 2011, while in June 2020, President Macron talks about times that number.

(2) Playing a leading role in European foreign policy

France is working to assume a leading role in European foreign policy, based on its colonial experience in North Africa. Hence, Paris introduced an initiative on Libya that brought together GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar in May 2018, as well as heads of the House of Representatives, the Presidential Council, and the Supreme Council of State. However, Italy, which competes with France for playing this role, rejected the outputs of that initiative and organized the Palermo Conference on Libya in November 2018.

(3) French negative position toward streams of political Islam

France seeks to prevent the emergence of any role for the streams of political Islam in North and West African countries, even if the rise of these currents came according to peaceful consensual mechanisms, or according to democratic tools, such as elections or others, because France sees the rise of these streams and the stability of their conditions as a threat to its interests and influence; and also due to a French desire to limit Turkish influence in the region, that is not separated from this goal, as Paris sees Ankara as a supporter of these currents.

(4) Exporting France’s internal crises

Among the French political goals is President Macron’s endeavor to export his internal crises, as he faces many challenges and criticisms against his internal policy, which reflected on the results of the municipal elections in March and June 2020, revealing great successes for the Green Party and its leftist allies at the expense of Macron’s Republican Forward Party. Therefore, Macron seeks to deflect the attention of French citizens from internal challenges, by escalating with Turkey in the Libyan arena.

Conclusion

Within the framework of this map of economic, security, military, political, and strategic interests, it can be concluded that it is very difficult for France to back down on its position in Libya, even if that led it to coordinate with Russia at the expense of its relationship with its NATO allies, unless the United States put things back in place within the NATO system in the face of the growing Russian threat in the eastern and southern Mediterranean.

However, the French role in the Libyan issue is governed by basic considerations, which can constitute a major obstacle to French ambitions, if these considerations were not addressed efficiently and effectively, including:

1- The negative mental image of France in Libya and the Arab Maghreb countries, as well as in the West African, Sahel and Sahara countries, as a result of its colonial background and its subversive policies in these countries. This image can produce numerous reprisals against French interests, not only in these countries, but they may extend to the French interior in the form of terrorist or violent attacks, taking into account that France has precedents in this matter.

2- The American variable not only in NATO, or the impact on the European Union countries, including France, but also through the US troops and US military bases in the region, as well as the strategic interests of the United States that often conflict with French interests, in light of the growing role of AFRICOM troops in North Africa and the Mediterranean basin, away from the NATO umbrella.

3- The presence of European powers that have reservations on the French orientations in Libya and even reject them, most prominently Italy whose objectives in Libya are no less important than the French goals, as it believes that Italy has historical rights in Libyan lands, against the background of Italian colonization of Libya from 1911 to 1943, in addition to being linked with Libya via several strategic and even popular interests, which could constitute an obstacle to French ambitions to dominate the Libyan file unilaterally.

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