By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook explores France’s foreign policy in Libya, examining the mixture of strategic, geopolitical, economic, and ideological factors driving French interests in Libya.
Libya’s civil war is fueled by internal contradictions underlying the rivalry of various political military forces as well as external interferences of regional and international actors pursuing their own economic and geo-strategic interests.
As such, it appears that France’s intervention in Libya is primarily driven by the preservation of French economic benefits and in line with its desire to maintain and expand French influence in North Africa.
On 19 March 2011, NATO members served as the air force of the revolution that toppled long-time Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
The roles of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British Prime Minister David Cameron were substantial in his removal from power. However, the Europeans proved unable to prevent the country’s descent into a civil conflict which has recently intensified, maintaining Libya’s status as an extremely fractured source of regional instability.
The overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime failed to create stable political structures.
The country steadily plunged into conflict fueled both by internal contradictions underlying the rivalry of various political-military forces and external interferences of regional and international actors pursuing their own economic and political-strategic interests.
Libyan Warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared `Libyan National’ Army (LNA) announced in December 2019 that a “decisive battle” had been launched to capture the capital Tripoli from the internationally recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA).
This latest offensive comes ten months after he launched an earlier military attack to seize the capital. The conflicting parties in Libya, as well as international stakeholders, recently met in Berlin for a one-day summit to persuade Libya’s warring sides, as well as their main international backers, to agree to a ceasefire, to respect a UN arms embargo, and pave the way for a political dialogue to negotiate a long-term political settlement.
However, in the eyes of many observers, the conference represented an abject failure as some countries continue to provide military assistance to Haftar.
International involvement from the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and France is exacerbating the conflict, making the process of national reconciliation elusive.
“France is pursuing a mixture of strategic, geopolitical, and ideological interests in Libya. It clearly believes that Haftar is a viable partner for its counter-terrorism work, but perhaps more than that.
They believe he can be a lynchpin of the Sahel security architecture that they’re attempting to build whereby he can support French clients such as Chad’s President Idris Deby and Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou to maintain their regimes and combat jihadist or oppositional movements.
Haftar is also important to them as a means of strengthening the long-standing relationship with the UAE, whom they have tight security cooperation with and view as their main regional partner.
Finally, much like the Emirates, the French have a particular view of the region whereby they have a deep-seated paranoia of political Islam in any guise and a strong preference for authoritarian governing structures in African and Middle Eastern states,” Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Tarek Megerisi, told TRT World Research Centre.
What drives France’s policies in Libya?
The battle over the control of Libya’s oil resources According to the 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels.
When Gaddafi was in power, Libya produced some 1.6 million barrels per day, exported mostly to Italy, France, Spain and Germany. However, the Libyan economy has experienced a significant decline because of political unrest and fighting over the control of oil fields, resulting in a concomitant decline in production.
Libyan oil is cheap to extract and easy to export to Europe. Hence, Paris seeks to achieve significant commercial benefits by securing and promoting the interest of the French oil giant, Total.
However, the Libyan economy has experienced a significant decline because of political unrest and fighting over the control of oil fields, resulting in a concomitant decline in production.
Libya until recently has been producing about 1.2 million BPD of oil and all major fields lie in areas controlled by Haftar’s eastern-based so-called Libyan National Army (LNA).
Whereas, the country’s largest oilfield, and a second major one in the southwest, began shutting down last month after forces loyal to Haftar closed a pipeline connecting them to the coast.
If the blockade continues, Libya is highly likely to face a financial crisis and budget deficit in 2020. The continuation of the shutdowns will result in a catastrophic financial crisis, Al-Sarraj UN-backed Prime Minister stated that Tripoli losses from the oil shutdowns had exceeded $1.4bn.
The struggle over the control of Libya’s oil resources is a major driver in the ongoing conflict. Haftar has enjoyed political and logistical support from France, UAE, Egypt and Russia. Libya’s fragmentation at the political and security level has effectively invited open competition for the country’s energy resources.
Oil revenues have been, and remain, at the heart of the conflict. Economic interests and security concerns France’s intervention in Libya is driven largely by the preservation of French economic interests and in line with its desire to strengthen French influence in North Africa. Security considerations also factor significantly into France’s decision making in the region.
Security concerns in the Sahel-Sahara region and strategic geopolitical stances are surely impacts on French approaches to Libya. Southwest Libya rests at the crossroads of Algeria, Niger and Chad. The region links southern Libya to the Sahel and sub-Saharan migrant routes to northern Libya and onto Europe.
The region is also known as a hub for arms traffickers, warlords and even terrorist groups such as Daesh, Al-Qaeda. Therefore, securing the region is considered vital for France in order to preserve its political influence and economic interests.
Therefore, Paris has heavily invested in the Sahel and Sahara regions. For example, France has a military base N’Djamena in Chad that supports its operations in the Sahel.
In this regard, Paris sees Haftar as a strong man who could potentially stop militias from Chad and Niger from using southern Libya as a safe haven.
“France is pushing for regional military support in the Sahel, but the proposed force risks are causing more harm than good, the U.S. Special Forces are doing the heavy lifting in terms of Intelligence, sharing their information’s with Algeria a pivotal state in the Sahel and North Africa with Egypt and Morocco,” Abdennour Toumi, Researcher at Ankara ORSAM think tank Centre, told TRT World Research Centre.
France seems to have a highly militarised approach to counter-terrorism in Africa’s Sahel that has come at the cost of supporting military regimes instead of supporting the democratic process in the region.
“From France’s point of view, Libya is considered as an important oil producer, a key territory for controlling NorthSouth migration flows toward Europe as well as the situation in the strategic Saharan conflict. France in Libya is acting along with its allies, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in the frame of a “counter-revolutionary” front which – under the pretext of “fighting political Islam”- unites Arab autocrats and right-wing European leaders.” François Burgat, Academic and Senior Research Fellow (Emeritus) at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told TRT World Research Centre.
Paris supported the National Transitional Council (NTC) during the revolution. In return, French companies would gain rights to more than a third of Libya’s oil production.
Since Qaddafi was toppled in 2011, French energy giant Total substantially increased its presence in Libya.
In March 2018, Total managed to purchase a 16.33 per cent stake in Libya’s Waha Concessions, worth $450 million. The Waha Concessions, which are located in the southeast of Sirte, has the potential of producing 600 thousand BPD.
Total is a significant oil player in Libya which pumps more than 1million BPD and aiming to reach 2.1 million BPD by 2023. Therefore, there is no doubt that Paris seeks to achieve significant commercial benefits from securing its interests in Libya, especially within the energy sector.
Some observers have also argued that potential reconstruction contracts and increased interest for oil business are France’s main foreign policy drivers in Libya.
Personal ties with Haftar
French support for Haftar, which is primarily based upon furthering its economic interests and political influence, is also using the mantra of counter-terrorism to justify its position. As such, France’s Libya policy completely ignores human-rights concerns and democratic ideals.
In fact, by backing Haftar, who is seeking to return Libya to one-man military rule and dictatorship, France is in direct contradiction with the democratic principles Paris says it stands for.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, who served as a Defence Minister under Francois Hollande’s Presidency and is now the Foreign Minister in Macron’s government, is the architect of France’s support for Haftar.
It is under Hollande’s presidency that Paris began to support Haftar; a policy that has continued full steam since.
It is believed that Le Drian has a good relationship with Haftar, according to some reports, he visited Haftar in Benghazi in March 2019, when Haftar asked why he had not seen Le Drian in so long, Le Drian responded that France was simply “waiting for your victories”.
France-Afrique, is the well-known term used to describe the approach taken by France to keep its former colonies under its influence. More often than not, France has struct deals that which are not always in the best interest of the African people.
Although most former French colonies gained their independence throughout 1960s, Paris has continued to maintain its influence through political, security, economic and cultural connections over areas it has deemed to be strategically important.
The maintenance of corrupt leaders seems to have become a condition for continued business for colonial powers in Africa. Thus, French officials have developed personal relationships with unpopular African politicians and military dictators to protect its economic interests in the region.
Several governments with traditionally close ties to France have a poor record of governance at home, in terms of human rights, corruption and the concentration of power among a tiny ruling circle.
For instance, Gnassingbé Eyadema, former President of Togo, came to power in a military coup and ruled over an oppressive regime, despite the fact that, he enjoyed the support of Paris.
Eyadema was described by French President Jacques Chirac as being “a close personal friend of mine and of France.”
France continues to do everything in its power, including providing political and military assistance to protect its political allies in Africa regardless of corruption and practices that contradict France’s supposed promotion of democracy.
In this respect, Paris sees Haftar as the best bet to secure its economic interests and the strengthening of its political influence in Libya.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policies. His interest include the politics of the Middle East and its influence in North Africa, particularly inregards to the potential for stronger economic, political and social partnerships.
TRT Research Centre