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Pariscope: Libya, a Case Study in Missteps


Libya is a perfect example for the shortcomings of Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy initiatives.

In July 2017, barely two months after taking office, Emmanuel Macron made Libya his first foreign policy initiative. The French president leveraged his image as Europe’s political superstar to orchestrate a meeting between the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and renegade military leader Khalifa Haftar.

Looking back at Macron’s first attempt at ending Libya’s civil war is illuminating, not least because it illustrates three key tenants of Macron’s foreign policy vision.

The Macron Doctrine

First, France’s president believes you cannot shape reality if you don’t recognize the facts on the ground. Whether you like it or not, General Haftar was in control of most of the country’s east and south in 2017. To stabilize the country, Macron was convinced that it was no use ignoring these realities; one had to talk to Haftar.

Macron believes that France is destined to be the player that can speak to all sides. Yes, the country is a member of the European Union and NATO. But, as Macron outlined in a 2019 speech addressing his assembled ambassadors, he sees France’s role as a global “balancing power” with an independent voice.

Second, Macron prioritizes security over other issues. In summer 2017, the so-called Islamic State had just been driven out of central Libya. Sarraj dominated Tripoli and Libya’s western coastline, which is key to controlling migration across the Mediterranean. Italy and Germany were thus primarily interested in collaborating with al-Sarraj’s UN-backed government.

For Paris however, the main concern remained fighting terrorism and keeping pressure on the fundamentalist militias active in the Sahel. Since 2014, France has deployed up to 4,500 troops from Mauritania to Chad to stabilize the region. Macron’s predecessor, the former president François Hollande, had already banked on Haftar not allowing Islamist militias active in Chad and Niger to use southern Libya as a safe haven.

Third, according to Macron, action is always better than passivity. If you don’t act and get involved, others will decide for you. In his view, France must get engaged in Libya if it wants to prevent resurgent Russia or neo-imperial Turkey from calling the shots. Sovereignty-obsessed Macron hates to be someone else’s hostage.

Fool Me Once

All of these considerations led Macron to invite Haftar to Paris in July 2017, thereby elevating the erstwhile Gaddafi ally to Sarraj’s equal. At first sight, the meeting looked like a success. A ceasefire was agreed and the two opponents even vowed to hold national elections.

In reality, the initiative turned out to be a complete failure. In hindsight, it illustrates a pattern of foreign policy mistakes that the otherwise adaptive French president keeps repeating.

As with the embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, opening the door to an international pariah can help put France at the center of the geopolitical attention for a moment. But it doesn’t necessarily yield meaningful results. Offering Haftar the international recognition he was longing for, Macron may have in fact emboldened the military man to take the battle to Tripoli in an attempt to become Libya’s ruler.

Moreover, Macron’s Libyan summit wasn’t coordinated with Rome or Brussels, and none of the regional powers involved in the conflict were present. Macron is prone to the notion that he can do everything on his own. At home this has worked to some extent. On the international stage his unilateral approach is doomed to fail.

Lastly, for Haftar, as for Putin, shaking hands with Macron was a free lunch. But for the French president, his overture cost him a lot of good will and trust in Europe. Italy had a long-standing Libya policy of supporting al-Sarraj. By officially courting Haftar, Macron managed to speedily turn Rome against him. Hosting Putin and calling for Europe to reach out to Russia had the same effect with Poland.

Doubling Down

Of course, Macron wouldn’t be sitting in the Élysée today if he was discouraged easily. In April 2019, 76-year-old Haftar marched on Tripoli in an attempt to overthrow the al-Sarraj government. With Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—both French strategic allies and important arms purchasers—and even Russia supporting Haftar, what could go wrong? Did Macron want to force a decision?

Rogue military strongman Haftar most likely did not ask Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, or Paris for permission. Nonetheless, Haftar’s troops were found to be in possession of French arms and Paris blocked an EU statement condemning the Tripoli offensive. In a TV interview following last year’s G7 meeting in Biarritz, Macron came close to acknowledging France’s involvement in Libya.

But the offensive stalled. And by siding with Haftar, Macron has lost his posture as an honest broker, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel to have her own go at a Libya peace conference. This might also turn out to be the case regarding Russia. If Moscow and Brussels ever do move toward closer cooperation, Macron won’t be brokering the deal: Europe’s Russia-skeptics simply don’t trust him.

Jouer Sur Deux Tableaux

For the family picture at the January Libya conference in Berlin, Merkel and Macron stood side by side in the center, giving the impression they were in agreement and in charge—which couldn’t have been more misleading.

Germany calls upon everyone to be reasonable, but has no idea how to bring about peace or even a ceasefire. In the classic tradition of French diplomacy, Paris, meanwhile, is hedging: while officially supporting a political solution, France continues to give Haftar diplomatic support. Most recently by accusing Turkey of sending further Syrian troops to Tripoli and violating the arms embargo agreed in Berlin.

Libya has become an illustration of not only Macron’s, but also Europe’s foreign policy malaise. France’s key concern is security, while Germany tends to focus on single policy issues such as migration. Paris wants a seat at the geopolitical bargaining table. Berlin instead is happy to take on a Swiss-style role of conference hotelier.

The tragedy is, as the Libyan case illustrates, that as long France and Germany fail to combine their forces, neither will succeed—or even matter.