“To regain its position in Libya, France must restore the credibility it lost”

France reopened its embassy in Tripoli on Monday after a seven-year closure, in a demonstration in support of Libya’s new unity government. A decade after French forces helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, Jowharlooks at France’s damaged position in the North African country in an interview with Libyan specialist Jalel Harchaoui.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to reopen the embassy earlier this month, saying France owed “a debt to Libya and the Libyans in a decade of unrest” – a reference to the ten years of unrest and violence that followed Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

Macron spoke after a meeting in Paris with Mohammad Younes Menfi, the head of Libya’s presidential council. He promised France “full support” for the country’s transitional government, which took over earlier this month from two rival administrations that govern Libya’s eastern and western regions.

France had positioned itself as a mediator in the battle that pitted the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which ruled western Libya, against the eastern forces loyal to the ousted military commander General Khalifa Haftar. But its reputation as an honest broker was tarnished by accusations that it secretly backed Haftar and saw in him a protection against terrorism – Macron repeatedly claims.

While Haftar’s last defeat last year helped pave the way for a new unity government, the Libyan restoration has also underlined the shifting power play in the war-torn North African country and cemented the growing Turkish and Russian influence. Jowharspoke with Libyan expert Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Global Initiative against Cross-Border Organized Crime, about France’s efforts to restore its reputation and influence in the country.

FRANCE 24: How important is France’s decision to reopen its embassy?

Jalel Harchaoui: The embassy is reopening in a very specific context. Political and security situations have changed dramatically in recent months, surprising some foreign players such as France, who have followed the process from the sidelines and treated it with some skepticism. Of course, Paris now wants to take advantage of the new situation in Libya. The country’s political climate has changed significantly thanks to a new style of governance embodied by the Prime Minister, a former businessman. However, there are other changes that the French will have to deal with, especially the growing Turkish and Russian presence. France can always lament Turkey’s invasion, but it is powerless to stop it. The Turks are long-term residents of the country, from where they will stick to military bases.

Has Macron acknowledged a failure in French diplomacy in the country when he talks about a French “guilt” against Libya?

By using the word guilt, Macron seemed to be asking for a chance to make up for the past and play a role in the new Libya. But the restoration of the country does not necessarily mean that France will be able to regain its position there. It must first restore the credibility it lost by offering political and diplomatic support to General Haftar, who has since been ousted. Referring to Libya’s “decade of disorder”, Macron hoped to distance himself from his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who tried to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011. But one must not forget that Libyans today are much more traumatized by Haftar’s deadly offensive against Tripoli. 2019. The memory of the fighting, in which thousands were killed, is still raw. And then there are the millions of dollars lost because of the oil blockade that Haftar introduced in the midst of economic crises and health crises. In the eyes of many Libyans today, France’s real failure is to have played peacemaker while investing in a warmer that future historians are unlikely to treat kindly.

>> How the silence of the West encouraged Libya’s Haftar

How can France restore its credibility and play a role in Libya?

Libya after Gaddafi is essentially open to Europe and as such, Libyans pay close attention to what France says or does. But it is not certain that it will last. Other powers that are neither African nor European set foot in the country, such as Turkey and Russia. Even China could play a bigger role in Libya’s reconstruction than France. Right now we see a flow of French diplomatic activity in Libya, but France needs a coherent strategy with specific goals that lead to measurable results. There are many areas where France can have a positive impact, as they know that Libyans in general are appreciative and aware of such gestures. But it is important to secure concrete results. As we have seen in Lebanon, in the wake of Beirut’s port blast last year, French diplomacy can be proactive and still yield zero results.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.