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International Conference on Libya at the Élysée Palace - Was the French Initiative Really Justified?

Analyses - 5 June 2018

The international meeting held at the Élysée on 29 May, skillfully handled by President Macron, had all - or almost all - the qualities of a successful diplomatic coup.

This success is the result of progresses on three fronts, which were not anticipated. First, the four main headliners of the Libyan political scene - Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Presidents of the two rival parliamentary assemblies - agreed to participate in a joint meeting. Mr. Fayez al-Sarraj and Marshal Haftar had not met since their bilateral meeting in May 2017, also organized by France, at La Celle Saint-Cloud. Second, six international organizations and around 15 countries - the permanent members of the Security Council as well as Italy, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria and others - supporting different camps or different factions, were also present. Gathering so many representatives with such diverging interests in the same room required a certain talent on the part of the French diplomats.
Finally, the meeting ended with the adoption of an ambitious text - a roadmap - with a precise timetable. It notably included the organization of general elections to be held on 10 December 2018, preceded by the adoption in September of a constitutional framework. This text was not endorsed with a signature at the bottom of a parchment. Competing Libyan leaders orally committed to abiding by it - in response to Mr Macron's question at the final press conference. 

"Are the protagonists gathered in Paris by Mr Macron - provided that they really want to implement the plan agreed on 29 May - really the decisive players on the field?"

Of course, according to many observers, this is where the exercise reaches its own boundaries.

  • A first set of criticisms relates to the timetable’s lack of realism. In a country as fragmented as Libya, still plagued by structural insecurity (role of militias, presence of jihadists, Haftar's unofficial army, bloody attacks, trafficking of all sorts), succeeding in organizing elections in such a short period of time seems unlikely. The question is all the more relevant that, according to the text adopted at the Élysée, a whole series of measures will have to be taken by then. Given the Libyan context, such a task is not far off from Hercules’s labors. Indeed, it would require rebuilding a national army, unifying the currency, having various laws endorsed by the two assemblies, which are opposed to each other. Not to mention developing a basis for the constitution, the nature of which also gives rise to different interpretations.

    This skepticism is shared by some of the countries - including the United States - present at the Élysée meeting. One cannot exclude the possibility that a certain form of jealousy towards France’s activism might have influenced the judgment of some.
  • Another line of criticism targets the "casting" for the Élysée meeting, but its scope is in fact wider. Are the protagonists gathered in Paris by Mr Macron - provided that they really want to implement the plan agreed on 29 May - really the decisive players on the field? If they ended up in the Élysée palace, is it not precisely because, isolated from their own country, they cling on to a form of global status and existence? And see an accelerated electoral process as a way to save their political careers? Wouldn't it have been more useful, for example, to have Misrata's militias around the table? In the same vein, field experts warn that by putting forward political processes once again - laws, a constitution, elections - the international community might undermine the efforts civil society has been deploying for several months now. Indeed, such efforts include what is known as the "national conference", articulated around 40 "citizen meetings", monitored by an NGO specialized in mediation, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD). Another example of this type of approach is the informal meetings organized in Cairo between officers of military units belonging to opposite camps.

    This is undoubtedly a particularity of the Libyan conflict. The latter has indeed become a laboratory for new forms of action, given the State’s incapacity to resolve the crisis. A bottom-up approach is adopted by undeniably qualified and respectable NGOs. However, the report published just before the Paris meeting by the International Crisis Group or even the article in Le Monde of 29 May both give the impression of a cultural clash between two radically different methods. The French are indeed suspected of merely deploying techniques of traditional diplomacy from another era.
  • The third series of criticisms is intertwined with the other two. Previous UN experience of crisis management shows that it is very rare for regular elections to restore civil peace. Take the many elections and referendums in Afghanistan and Iraq for example. France’s action, by imposing this idea as the key to ending the crisis in Libya, would be restrained to a diplomatic coup, without fear of outshining UN mediation.

"If the Élysée meeting was able to take place at all, it is because the situation on the ground called for an initiative to relaunch a political process."

Let us be clear: while some of these criticisms deserve consideration, the French initiative was perfectly justified. If the Élysée meeting was able to take place at all, it is because the situation on the ground called for an initiative to relaunch a political process. This itself was undoubtedly due to a combination of factors of degradation and progress. In addition, French diplomacy worked in perfect harmony with the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. The agenda that the French defended at the Élysée meeting was the one that Ghassan Salamé himself had set before the United Nations Security Council on 21 March. The United Nations Special Representative made two observations. First, the processes he had tried to implement (the revision of the Libyan Political Agreement) had failed. Second, the Libyan people, through multiple channels (including voter registration), had shown their willingness to hold elections quickly. It should be added that it is certainly not impossible to ensure the complementarity between, on the one hand, the in-depth action of NGOs with society or the various groups involved in the conflict and, on the other hand, the more institutional action that States and the international community should support.

Will France's new initiative on the Libyan issue lead to a decisive breakthrough? It would be risky to assert it, but it is a useful contribution to a settlement effort that must be pursued relentlessly.


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