On 29 March, the French Embassy in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, was reopened after seven years of closure. The new embassy relocated from the upscale Al-Andalus neighbourhood, west of Tripoli, to a new building near the city centre, where security is relatively better. The old building was attacked by a car bomb on 23 April, 2013, and two French guards and a Libyan teenager were injured.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the step on 24 March, after meeting the newly-elected Chair of Libya’s Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Menfi, who came to Paris seeking French support for the new government already sworn in a week earlier.
Paris’s relations with Tripoli were strained after France sided with General Khalifa Haftar’s 2019-2020 military offensive to take Tripoli by force. That offensive ended in defeat, and the former government has already been replaced, paving the way for Paris to seek a fresh start in Libya.
By reopening the embassy, President Macron wanted to send a message to friends and foes alike. On the one hand, he sought to reaffirm Paris’s support for the new Libyan authority, while on the other, he wanted to tell France’s competitors that France is back with the intention of playing an active role in the Libyan file, after watching it from the sidelines for nearly a year.
Macron underscored the point in his press conference, by pointing out that reopening the embassy intended to show all his “support and that of France” for the new Libyan unified authorities. The Government of National Unity (GNU) ended the country’s two separate governments that existed from 2014 up until last month.
At one point, Macron seemed on the brink of admitting France’s error of judgement in leading the military intervention a decade earlier that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s government, expressing: “We have a debt towards Libya and the Libyans for a decade of disorder.”
Under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France spearheaded the military intervention in Libya in 2011, before handing over the military operations to NATO. Claiming “the protection of civilians”, that military operation set Libya on a decade of wars and disputes for which France and its NATO allies, at least, are morally responsible. But what really worries France is the presence of foreign fighters in Libya and the role played by their sponsors, particularly Turkey.
Macron was more adamant in rejecting the presence of foreign fighters in Libya. He asserted: “Turkish and Russian fighters [and] those foreign fighters sent in by them or others” must leave Libya as soon as possible. He added that only the “Libyan armed forces are legitimate.” It is not clear if he was referring to Haftar’s forces, officially known as the Libyan Armed Forces, or to the still to be established united armed forces – a top GNU priority.
The GNU is yet to unite the armed forces fragments into one official and disciplined armed force under one command structure. Over the past seven years, forces loyal to Haftar have been fighting on and off against batches of militias aligned with the former Tripoli government. The new government, in a way, inherited this situation, despite a ceasefire being in place for nearly six months now.
Macron’s remarks of support were echoed by his foreign minister, who expressed French support for the new executive, while visiting Tripoli with his Italian and German counterparts. On 25 March, French Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated that the European Union (EU) “cannot” look away from Libya because it is our “immediate” neighbour, and that the Libyan crisis has serious repercussions for Europe itself. For over a decade now, Libya has been a favoured route for human traffickers bringing illegal migrants to the EU. Stemming the flow of migrants from Libya, if not stopping it altogether, has topped the EU agenda for years.
Concerning Libya, the EU is united over two main issues: illegal migration and the presence of foreign forces in the country. EU Council President Charles Michel visited Libya on 5 April, voicing EU support for the GNU, while pointing out that building a new Libya requires the departure of “foreign fighters and troops”. The United Nations (UN) estimates that about 20,000 mercenaries are currently stationed in at least ten different bases on Libyan soil. Foreign mercenaries, mainly from Syria and Russia, have been supporting different sides in the conflict in Libya.
France is aiming to reassert itself in Libya after, just a few months ago, appearing to lose to its foe, Turkey, which made significant gains in the oil-rich North African country.
What concerns France the most is the security and maritime deals that Tripoli’s former government signed with Turkey in November 2019, in return for security and military assistance that helped to repel Haftar’s attack on Tripoli in 2019-2020. Ankara airlifted thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight against Haftar’s troops supported by thousands of Russian mercenaries.
However, by embracing the new Libyan GNU, Paris is not just being amenable and supportive, but has its own interests to serve. French companies would like to have their share in the reconstruction projects that Libya will undoubtedly embark on when the country’s security is sustained.
Strategically, France, a dominant player in the African Sahel region, considers southern Libya as a source of threat to the stability of its clients in the area. Lawless southern Libya has been the hub of illegal activities, including arms trading and human trafficking. The vast desert region also serves as a safe hideaway for foreign Jihadists active in the entire Sahel region. Colonial France briefly controlled Fezzan, Libya’s southern region, and used it as a staging point for its activities deep into Africa, beyond the Sahara. Paris’s loyal governments in Niger, Mali and Chad have been battling terrorism and ethnic insurgencies, destabilising the area for years now.
Paris’s interest in Libya is certainly part of its wider African Sahel strategy, reaching far beyond Libya’s oil riches. On the Mediterranean’s southern shores, France would like to trim Turkey’s increasingly expansionist policy, in which Libya is a vital cornerstone, into Africa proper.