Two aspects have marked Emmanuel Macron’s Libya policy thus far:
(a) short-lived unilateral initiatives that have complicated the work of United Nations (UN) mediators; and
(b) cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the ultimately failed attempt to facilitate militia leader Khalifa Haftar’s ascension by force.
In a situation where the USA failed to assert its leadership, France ensured that Europe did not take a more robust stance towards Haftar’s foreign backers.
This policy contributed to an unprecedented escalation of the conflict, and paved the way for Russia to intervene with Emirati support. In turn, Turkey moved to counter Haftar and the UAE.
The upshot of Macron’s Libya policy is that the UAE, Russia and Turkey have massively expanded their interventions while Europe has almost entirely lost its influence in the conflict.
Since Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli, France has taken a lower profile in Libya, but the consequences of its policies remain. Foreign meddlers have retained their presence and influence even after the ceasefire of October 2020 and the formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU) in March 2021.
In Berlin, France’s Libya policy caused much head-shaking. Yet Germany shied away from confronting France over Libya because, from Berlin’s perspective, the Libya file was not a priority in Franco-German relations.
Similarly, at the European level, Macron and his Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did not have to work very hard to convince others to prevent a tougher stance on Haftar and his foreign backers.
French diplomacy succeeded in diluting the original objective of the Berlin process, namely curbing foreign intervention.
France’s destabilising policy and Germany’s passivity complemented each other fatally.
The formation of the GNU has allowed both states to rally behind the UN-led process once more. But just as the GNU papers over deep domestic rifts without overcoming them, conflicting foreign interests are likely to gradually pull its constituent parties in opposing directions.
German and French positions on Libya began to diverge after the creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in late 2015 under UN auspices. Germany initially supported the GNA, but remained neutral when Haftar launched his offensive against Tripoli in April 2019.
France, by contrast, from early 2016 onwards provided military support to Haftar, the GNA’s greatest adversary. French support allowed Haftar to make territorial gains in Benghazi. It also signalled that Haftar remained France’s preferred partner despite his opposition to the GNA.
This helped him consolidate his authority over the east of the country. France thus substantially contributed to the GNA’s failure to reunite the politically divided country.
In 2017, Macron was the first European head of state to receive Haftar, thereby making him acceptable on the international stage. French special forces later supported the expansion of his forces in southern Libya, which immediately preceded the assault on Tripoli and was explicitly hailed by Foreign Minister Le Drian.
This undoubtedly emboldened Haftar to launch his attack on Tripoli. Given their cooperation with him, the French intelligence services must have been well informed about the preparations for the Tripoli offensive.
French diplomats nevertheless claimed that they had always advised him against an offensive in western Libya and had been taken by surprise by it.
Once the offensive had begun, French diplomats thwarted the EU from condemning Haftar, downplayed the humanitarian consequences of the war, and portrayed the warlord’s opponents as terrorists and criminals.
The ambiguous US position played into France’s hands. American diplomats and military officers had impressed on Haftar that Tripoli was a “red line”. But it later emerged that, just before the assault, Haftar had received the green light from US National Security Advisor John Bolton.
In addition to the obvious divergences in policy between Germany and France, there are three underlying differences on Libya.
First, Libya’s place on the list of foreign policy priorities varies strongly between Berlin and Paris. In France, Libya policy has for years attracted the personal attention of both President Macron and Foreign Minister Le Drian. By contrast, the German government displayed little interest in the Libyan conflict until the Berlin Conference of January 2020, and this high-level attention has proved fleeting.
Second, Germany’s Libya policy is anchored in multilateralism, whereas Macron has primarily acted unilaterally or in alliance with the UAE and Egypt in Libya.
Admittedly, the German commitment to multilateralism in Libya is less than persuasive, since Germany’s support for the UN masks the fact that Berlin does not have a Libya policy of its own. The UN arms embargo, which Germany likes to emphasise, is not taken seriously either by the members of the Security Council or the intervening states.
Yet one of the main factors contributing to the failure of the UN efforts was precisely France’s unilateralism. This was evident at the two Paris summits between Macron, Haftar and the GNA’s then-Prime Minister Fayez al‑Sarraj.
In both cases, Macron surprised the UN as well as his European partners with an improvised initiative. In 2017 and 2018 Macron’s solo efforts were the primary reason for Franco-Italian friction over European Libya policy, since Italy felt sidelined.
Third, like his predecessors, Macron is willing to become militarily involved in Libya whereas Germany practises military reticence.
Already during François Hollande’s quinquennat, the then-Defence Minister Le Drian began supporting Haftar with special forces. Under Macron, the French foreign intelligence service carried out reconnaissance for Haftar’s offensives.
Simultaneously, the French government cooperated with individual GNA commanders. In early 2019, French special forces supported the expansion of Haftar’s forces in southern Libya.
The discovery of French weapons during the attack on Tripoli in June 2019 also suggests that French forces were at least temporarily embedded in Haftar’s troops. However, France’s political backing was far more important for Haftar’s war, since it allowed him the necessary international leeway.
Macron’s Libya policy was as destructive as it was unsuccessful. To explain this puzzle, analysts have often credited the French government with trying to fight terrorism and stabilise southern Libya so as reduce threats to allied countries such as Chad and Niger, and the French military operating there.
However, this is not fully convincing. Other calculations underpinning France’s actions had little to do with stabilising Libya.
France’s close alliance with the UAE is likely to have been decisive in Macron’s support for Haftar.
In sofar as fighting terrorism is a motive in France’s Libya policy, it was shaped by Le Drian’s cooperation with Haftar during the Hollande presidency; under Macron, it has featured mainly as a path dependence.
After the devastating terrorist attacks in France in 2015, counterterrorism became a much more prominent theme in French foreign policy, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Mali and Libya.
In some cases, it was doubtful whether there was in fact a direct link between the jihadi groups in situ and the threat in France, or whether the French approach was appropriate for containing these groups.
In the words of one French diplomat, visibly supporting supposed counterterrorists like Haftar aimed not least at covering the government’s back against potential criticism by rightwing populist forces in France.
In fact, it could hardly be lost on the French government that Haftar, with his brutal methods, was combating not only jihadis but a much broader range of adversaries, thus creating fertile ground for further radicalisation; that he was using the fight against terrorism as a cover for his own autocratic ambitions; and that he strongly promoted radical Salafists in his own ranks.
Even after the start of the battle for Tripoli, Foreign Minister Le Drian continued to insist that French cooperation with Haftar had only ever been about combating terror, so as to protect France. But this official line was never plausible.
The decisive factor in Macron’s continued support for Haftar even after the so-called “Islamic State” had lost all its territory in Libya in 2017 was no doubt France’s close alliance with the UAE and Egypt. This had developed out of their intensive military cooperation and the existence of a French navy base in the UAE, and was cemented from 2014 to 2017 by lucrative French arms deals with both countries.
Emirati slogans of “religious tolerance” and hostility to political Islam also had their sympathizers in the Elysée Palace and the Quai d’Orsay, who conveniently ignored that Haftar boosted Salafi elements and that his wars boosted radicalisation.
French diplomats cooperated very closely with the UAE on Libya – first in their attempt to bring Haftar to power through negotiations, and from April 2019 onwards in preventing any Western pressure on the warlord and his foreign backers so that he could continue his war in Tripoli unhindered.
To ensure a Haftar victory, France’s Emirati allies even hired Russian mercenaries, thus creating a permanent Russian presence in Libya.
After Turkey’s intervention foiled this scheme, Macron relentlessly denounced Turkey’s role, but did not once mention the UAE.
If Macron and Le Drian really had stabilisation at heart when backing Haftar, then French policy was based on serious miscalculations.
Haftar’s expansion in the south did nothing to improve the security situation; in fact, it provoked new local conflicts that remain unresolved to date.
Meanwhile, Haftar has continued to rely on Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries in southern and central Libya, allowing such groups to recruit and arm themselves. Moreover, it was predictable before the war in Tripoli that Haftar’s attempt to seize power by force would cause massive destabilisation.
Besides, victory on the part of the ageing militia leader would have raised the question whether his highly personalised power structure could survive his death.
Such concerns over stabilisation appear not to have featured prominently in Macron’s Libya policy because it was strongly influenced by the UAE, for which these concerns do not matter. But this policy was diametrically opposed to the European interest in containing the conflict.
The first obvious victim of Franco-German divergences over Libya was the UN’s leading role in conflict resolution. While Germany largely limited itself to supporting the UN process, Macron undermined it with his unilateral initiatives of 2017 and 2018.
Berlin certainly saw this as disruptive. But high-ranking officials showed little interestin the Libya file, and were therefore not inclined to engage Macron on the issue.
Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, which France at least tacitly tolerated, then nullified all of the efforts by UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé. Salamé had long been preparing a National Conference that was meant to pave the path for conflict resolution and was planned for April 2019 – but never took place because of Haftar’s offensive.
During the Berlin process in autumn 2019, France led the camp of those who shifted the focus from enforcing the arms embargo to asking the GNA to make concessions as preconditions for a ceasefire.
At the time, Haftar’s foreign backers believed themselves to have the military advantage and were in no hurry to end the war. The Berlin Conference thus failed in its objective of stopping foreign interference in Libya.
Turkey, the UAE and Russia significantly expanded their interventions after the conference, while Europeans further lost influence – perhaps irreversibly so.
European diplomats try to credit the Berlin process with ending the war and facilitating the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU).
In reality, it was the Turkish intervention – in defiance of the Berlin process – that in spring 2020 pushed Haftar’s forces out of Tripoli and western Libya, thereby ending his offensive and establishing a balance of power along the new frontline in the centre of the country.
The ceasefire agreement signed in October 2020 merely formalised the new status quo. This equilibrium also formed the basis of a rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt which was key for promoting progress in the UN-led talks that led to the GNU’s formation.
Meanwhile, foreign meddlers have retained their influence: Turkey has cemented its formal military presence; Russian mercenaries have built fortifications and are securing key bases for Haftar in central and southern Libya; the UAE pay at least some of the mercenaries in Haftar’s service; and Egypt holds sway over political actors in the GNU and the parliament.
The conflicting parties of the last war continue to distrust each other, and are therefore unlikely to work towards the withdrawal of their foreign backers.
France’s partisanship in Libya has also had wider regional implications. France’s involvement in the dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean was directly linked to its opposition to Turkey in Libya.
In November 2019, Turkey had tied the conflict in Libya to the dispute over maritime borders in the Mediterranean by concluding a maritime agreement with the GNA.
France and the UAE used the occasion to win over Greece and Cyprus as new allies for Haftar. Macron repeatedly attacked Turkey for intervening in Libya, castigating it as a troublemaker and wrongly describing the Syrian mercenaries it deployed in Libya as “Jihadis” and “terrorists”.
The French government has been far less vocal on Russian involvement, while remaining entirely silent on the actions of its Emirati allies that had brought both Turkey and Russia to Libya.
The intention to single out Turkey apparently also contributed to the incident that occurred between a Turkish and a French battleship off Libya in June 2020, and strained relations within NATO for months.
France’s and Turkey’s Libya policies fuelled tensions within NATO, thereby playing into Russia’s hands. Finally, France’s support for Haftar indirectly backfired in the form of an incursion by Libya-based Chadian rebels into Chad in April 2021, during which France’s most important ally in the Sahel, President Idriss Deby, was killed.
The rebel group, Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), had since June 2017 been based in areas under Haftar’s control, and in early 2021 received training from Russian mercenaries at Haftar’s Brak al-Shate airbase in southern Libya.
The episode neatly sums up the counterproductive nature of France’s Libya policy under Macron.
The two defining characteristics of France’s Libya policy during the Macron presidency reveal both a stylistic feature of Macron’s diplomacy, and a new structural aspect of French foreign policy in Europe’s southern neighbourhood.
More often than his predecessor, Macron has drawn attention to himself on the international stage with impulsive, unilateral and often unsuccessful initiatives – and not only in Libya.
His support for Haftar, however, came about because of the ever closer French alliance with the UAE, which is based on common interests, especially in the military sector and the arms industry.
The result was a unilateral policy that served the interests of authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, but contradicted the European interest in stabilising the southern neighbourhood.
Although this policy irritated the German government, it encountered little open criticism.
With the conclusion of a ceasefire and the establishment of the GNU, the French and German governments have been keen to display their newfound unity in supporting the UN-led process.
German officials’ eagerness to attribute progress in Libya to the Berlin process conceals a stark reality of persistent foreign meddling. Meanwhile, France’s policy shift should not be seen as a reconversion to multilateralism.
With Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli, the previous policy simply became unviable – at least for now. There is no sign that the spectacular failure of Macron’s Libya policy has prompted any meaningful introspection.
Libya has hardly featured in French foreign policy debates; occasional criticisms in the media have not amounted to public controversy.
Paul Soler, who in Macron’s Élysée was key in devising France’s policy of support to Haftar, was in March 2021 appointed France’s special envoy to Libya.
German complacency regarding the semblance of progress in Libya could encourage yet more French adventurism.
Source: France’s Foreign and Security Policy under President Macron. The Consequences for Franco-German Cooperation. Ronja Kempin (ed.). SWP Research Paper 2021/RP 04