The joint statement adopted - but not signed - by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his rival General Khalifa Haftar at Celle St-Cloud in the Paris region on July 25 is a nice diplomatic maneuver for French President Emmanuel Macron, or rather a poker stroke.
How can we explain this French desire to relaunch a moribund reconciliation process?
It was Jean-Yves Le Drian as Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Defense under President Hollande, who maintained ties with General Haftar. Le Drian has indded been aware of the deterioration of the security situation in Libya for some time now.
According to the French president, the situation in Libya has become “a node of destabilization with multiple faces”.
There is also a French desire to be forgiven. Indeed, the efforts of former President Nicolas Sarkozy to bring down Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 are inversely proportional to France’s efforts to stabilize the country now and participate in its reconstruction now.
Along with the British – who are, on the record, completely silent and absent - France played the part of wizard apprentices, as the America of George W. Bush did before in Iraq. It is easy to defeat a dictator, but it is much more complicated to organize a lasting national reconciliation.
Being pragmatic, Emmanuel Macron felt that there was what is called in diplomatic language a “momentum”, that is to say, a window of opportunity for action. Breaking with the incantatory postures of his predecessor, the new tenant of the Elysée Palace decided to restore all the Middle Eastern and North African files in order to push forward with realism - but determination - the situation in Syria or Libya.
The French eagerness to act on the Libyan file also stems from the fear of seeing Russia carve out the lion’s share in the future Libya. After Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Moscow has established close ties with General Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, and also intends to weigh in on the future of the country. Macron, the first Western head of state to do this, offered him a political costume and diplomatic legitimacy by receiving him at Celle St-Cloud.Christian Chesnot
For their part, the two main Libyan protagonists - al-Sarraj and Haftar - are also keen to work with President Macron who has resurrected the voice of France, between that of Trump and Putin, both of whom were recently received in Paris.
The French eagerness to act on the Libyan file also stems from the fear of seeing Russia carve out the lion’s share in the future Libya. After Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Moscow has established close ties with General Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, and also intends to weigh in on the future of the country. Macron, the first Western head of state to do this, offered him a political costume and diplomatic legitimacy by receiving him at Celle St-Cloud.
In light of these new prospects that are now opening, France also counts on the new special envoy of the UN, the Franco-Lebanese Ghassan Salamé, who has been sailing for a long time in Parisian politico-diplomatic circles. France will have the ear of this experienced diplomat in the Libyan file, which also serves as a billiard table.
At the end of the Celle St-Cloud meeting, Macron thanked several countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and the UAE, but did not mention Qatar. We know that Doha has supported and continues to support the powerful militias of Misurata. In short, it is also a discrete but effective message to Qatar to shut down its aid to its local militia allies.
For the Libyan bet of Emmanuel Macron to succeed, it will be necessary to play collectively. Yet, Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, is furious about being put aside in a file where it is in the theater of operations. After all, it is Italy that receives front-line the flow of African migrants.
The main risk
Too sure of himself and of his good international reputation, the main risk for the French president would be to ruffle the susceptibilities of one or the other. Even if France has taken the lead for the European Union in the Libyan case, it will not be able to go far without the support of Brussels and the regional partners.
And then there is the justice of the peace which remains the one on the ground: given the multiplicity of the local Libyan actors in conflict, the road map approved at Celle St-Cloud will undoubtedly be put into practice and to the test soon.
The key question becomes: Beyond the quarrels of egos, are Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar really ready to play the democratic game?
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.