international analysis and commentary

France and the Libya crisis: between leadership and balance

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Comments in the United States on France’s decisive role in the Libya crisis have been based on feelings ranging from incredulity to admiration (and occasionally derision). This can be easily explained: the Iraq crisis of 2003, in which France staunchly opposed the US-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, remains in every body’s mind. Yet the parallel is misleading: as all crises, Libya must be understood on its own merits.

So what is it that led French President Nicolas Sarkozy to adopt such an activist—some would say impulsive—stance both on the diplomatic level (Paris played a pivotal role in the adoption of UNSC resolution 1973) and on the military level (France has been at the forefront of the operation since its very first day, even making it a point to be the first nation in the coalition to deliver strikes against Muammar Gheddafi’s forces)?

Much has been made of the narrow national motivations that purportedly lie behind Sarkozy’s move. The French president, of course, is known for his constant search for opportunities to place his country—and himself—in the middle of the international game. Ever since he took over the presidency of the G20 last November, he has made it clear that he hoped to redress his badly damaged domestic prestige thanks to his global activism. No doubt, he will want to capitalize on the success he is after in the Libyan crisis in order to maximize his chances in next year’s presidential election.

It is also clear that Sarkozy’s hawkish stance can be explained by France’s poor showing in the early phase of the “Arab springs.” A success in Libya, it is hoped, will offset the disastrous impression left by Paris’s inability (to be sure, shared with other Western capitals) to anticipate events in Tunisia and Egypt and its readiness to accommodate discredited regimes to the very end. Finally, the crisis is evidently seen as an opportunity to strengthen France’s game in the European context: the recent euro crisis has once again demonstrated Germany’s dominant economic role, and Sarkozy’s diplomatic and military activism is a reminder that the asymmetry between Paris and Berlin works the other way round when it comes to political and strategic clout. 

Yet it would be a serious mistake to interpret Sarkozy’s activism only in such narrow personal or national terms. Far more wide ranging, indeed strategic motivations loom large in his calculus. After an initial phase of shock and awe faced with the Arab revolutions, the French president has taken the measure of both the challenges and opportunities which they pose for France and Europe. The fundamental conclusion he has reached is that the status quo has become far more destabilizing than change and that the success of the ongoing political and economic transition is vital. Preventing a Libyan backlash is therefore key to preventing a wider Arab backlash—starting with neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

Beyond the fate of the fragile Libyan revolution, the stakes are thus long term ones. In 2008, Sarkozy launched the Union for the Mediterranean, a well-meaning but ultimately fleeting attempt to revive the Barcelona process. Clearly, the initiative was hampered by the obsession for protecting the status quo that on both sides of the Mediterranean prevailed until the events triggered by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi. Aptly, he now wants to relaunch the process by reaching out not to aging tyrants, but to vibrant peoples. Down the road, the future of Europe’s relations with North Africa and the Arab world is at stake. Whether Libya remains in the hands of a bloody dictator or takes the turn towards democracy will be key.

Finally, the stakes of the Libyan crisis for Europe’s place in the world and for Euro-American relations are considerable. As demonstrated during the Russia-Georgia confrontation in the summer of 2008—which established his credentials as an energetic crisis manager—Sarkozy is willing to continue his predecessors’ ambition to build Europe as a meaningful power on the world scene. The Libyan crisis will certainly be a key test in that respect, as it will be for transatlantic relations: for the first time, the United States and the Europeans are managing a major crisis on a par, both in political and in military terms. Success or failure in Libya will thus determine the possibility of a new transatlantic relationship, no longer based on US dominance and European followership, but on the kind of strategic partnership that the allies have been calling for over the past fifty years. 

If the stakes are high, the uncertainties associated with Sarkozy’s Libya gamble are no less considerable. Success, of course, is never a sure thing. True, the French can rightly pride themselves that their leadership has made it possible to avoid the worse outcome, i.e. the fall of Benghazi and Gheddafi’s success in crushing the rebellion. Yet at this comparatively early stage in the allied engagement, a number of risks still loom quite large for France’s policy.

First, in terms of the objectives and modalities of the allied mission in Libya. The mandate, as stated in UNSC resolution 1973, is clear: to protect civilians by all necessary means short of an invasion on the ground. But it strikes a very delicate balance, which could easily be tipped in two opposite and equally undesirable directions: an excessive self restraint, leading to the serious possibility of a stalemate or even the de facto partition of the country; or an active policy of intervention in the conflict with the implicit objective (far exceeding the mandate) of forcing a regime change. As one of the key powers of the coalition, France will have the responsibility to ensure that the mission and the means at its disposal remain in keeping with the mandate.

Hence a second challenge for France: to be recognized as a credible leader. Never in the past has a medium power—not even Tony Blair’s Britain in the 1999 Kosovo crisis—been in such a leading role in a crisis of that magnitude. Yet the criticisms of Sarkozy’s decisions are already abundant, whether with regard to his alleged unilateralism in recognizing the rebels or in ordering early strikes even before the end of the summit he had convened to discuss the implementation of the resolution, or as a result of the feud over NATO’s precise responsibility after the US has relinquished its initial command role. Clearly, France’s stance will not be judged only on its own merits: Sarkozy will have to take into account the various prejudices, stereotypes or irritants that—some times for good reasons—still characterize European and American assessments of France’s international posture, not to mention his own impulsive style and controversial personality.

Finally, Sarkozy will have to be watchful of the European ramifications of his crisis management. Libya will be a test for the future of European construction in the political and strategic dimension. First, Franco-British military cooperation, which a recent bilateral treaty has sanctified, will have to demonstrate its relevance and efficiency in a crisis involving the two major European powers of a magnitude not seen since Suez. Second, the Franco-German couple will have to sort out its considerable differences: the Iraqi crisis, in which Paris and Berlin acted hand in hand, was, in many ways, a deceptive event in that regard, covering—as a result of Washington’s bellicose approach—the reality of fundamental divergences about the use of force, the nature of the international system and Europe’s role as a would-be global power. Libya has, once again, made these divergences dangerously apparent.

Altogether, therefore, Sarkozy’s approach to the unfolding Libya crisis will be judged on its ability to provide balance. On the mission and its execution, it will be vital to walk a fine line between abstention and outright intervention and to stick to the mandate as stated in the relevant UNSC resolutions. Regarding France’s leadership role, Sarkozy’s ability to inspire confidence among key partners thanks to an appropriate mix of French activism and collective action will be critical to his success. Finally, on the European level, keeping an equilibrium between Franco-British efficiency and Franco-German legitimacy will be of the essence. Libya involves much more than the future of the Sarkozy presidency.