Skip to main content

Libya: Another chapter in France's dysfunctional foreign policy

UK MPs hit Cameron hard on Libya in a report last week, but in France, no inquiry has been held despite mistakes that should have been learned

The recent UK Parliament committee report on the military intervention in Libya is not only critical of the war, but also reminds us of the recurrent malfunction between French politicians and the military.

In 2011, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy waged war in Libya in order for France to “gain more influence in North Africa” and for Sarkozy to “improve his poll numbers”. This is what the UK foreign affairs committee asserted in its 14 September report.

Saying that British democracy works better than the one in France is nothing new

British MPs on the committee question how the Benghazi intervention to save the population - threatened by Colonel Gaddafi’s crackdown which the MPs argue was “exaggerated” - transformed into a regime change operation.

The report also claims that Prime Minister David Cameron bears the “ultimate responsibility” for the air assault that led to Gaddafi’s fall and the civil war that followed, which Islamist groups took advantage of. Cameron’s decisions, according to the report, lacked a “coherent strategy”.

Different conflict, same conclusions

Saying that British democracy works better than the one in France is nothing new.

Under the French constitution, the executive can wage war without consulting parliament. Six months after the beginning of any military intervention abroad, parliament must be summoned for an advisory debate, but one without a vote.

The use of a parliamentary commission of inquiry remains a rare occurrence. The last time it happened was in 1998, following pressure from a media campaign by several NGOs following the Rwandan genocide. 

In 2006, Rwandans demonstrate in the streets of Kigali to denounce France's alleged complicity in the 1994 genocide (AFP)
Chaired by Paul Quiles, who had served as defence and interior minister, the French parliamentary commission on Rwanda published a detailed report in December 1998 thoroughly analysing how France had been involved in Rwanda along with recommendations for institutional changes since “errors of assessment” and “serious mismanagement within the institutions” were identified.

The Rwandan case, like “Operation Harmattan” – the codename for France’s participation in the Libyan intervention between March and October 2011 - and like the latest British Parliamentary report, draw the same conclusions.

Both inquiries highlight the paradoxes between the political power of France’s executive and the country’s military forces. Once again, if both of the Fourth and Fifth Republic constitutions stipulate that the executive power gives orders and the army executes them - which is the case for all the parliamentary democracies - the executive power has constitutional supremacy over the armed forces. This means that political and historical errors of the executive always fall on the shoulders of the army.

Since the trauma of May 1940’s Battle of France, when Germany invaded the country, this tendency has always clouded major French policy changes, such as the decolonisation process or the post-Cold War period.

Colony wars 

France owes to General De Gaulle - president of the “France libre(Free France) - its independence and national and international dignity which relied on three key factors: France’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council, nuclear deterrence and a foreign policy based on an independent and modern armed forces.

The same mistakes were made in Algeria, after massacres in Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata in May 1945, leading to a war that lasted from 1954 until 1962

Political leaders of the Fourth Republic – France’s government between 1946 and 1958 - did not continue that legacy, especially when it came to the decolonisation wars, starting with the Indochina War (1946-1954). In May 1954, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu sped up the Geneva Agreements signed in July 1954 which partitioned Vietnam and marked the beginning of the Vietnam War which killed at least a million people according to most accounts.

Of the war, many Vietnamese and French historians drew the same irrefutable conclusions. Among other things, they pointed out the intentional negligence on the part of the political leaders, who were entirely incapable of understanding and then dealing with the groundswell of the decolonisation process.

The political leaders of the Fourth Republic not only wanted to defend a system of economic and social exploitation that was completely obsolete at the end of World War II, but above all, they wanted to delegate their responsibilities to military officers who were already trying to deal with tricky operational situations in the field.

The same mistakes were made in Algeria, following massacres in the towns of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata in May 1945, leading to a war that lasted from 1954 until 1962.

French political leaders gave the military the authority to defend the colonial system and covered up the use of torture which eventually led to the fall of the Fourth Republic and brought General De Gaulle back to power.

Defending interests 

Unlike socialist leaders, from Guy Mollet to Francois Mitterrand, and the ones in favour of French Algeria, De Gaulle was undoubtedly the politician who best understood the inevitable self-determination of the French African colonies to come.

General Charles de Gaulle with the Bachaga of Algiers in October 1947 in Algiers (AFP)
Despite this, parts of the army during his tenure attempted a coup in Algeria with the support of wealthy and powerful settlers, although it was quickly brought to an end. On 18 March 1962, the Evian Agreements were signed, leading to the Algeria’s independence on 2 July 1962. Terrorists from the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), a group of right-wing French dissidents who wanted to prevent the country from becoming independent, would try to prevent those agreements from being applied, and the topic is one which still divides French opinion today.

These historical reminders are essential to understand the Libyan disaster, especially since the present conflict shares similarities with many of the “humanitarian wars” that have been waged by Western forces since the end of the Cold War: Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

All of them were waged in the name of defending “human rights”, but truthfully, they were waged only to defend Western economic interests in those regions, to meddle with the domestic affairs of those countries for regime change, as researcher Alain Joxe showed in his 2002 book Global Empire Wars.

Once again, let’s recall General De Gaulle who decided to withdraw France from NATO in 1966 because he did not believe in “Western war” and wanted France to be independent, the symbol of a third way of thinking, one in favour of a multipolar world, in one dominated by the Western and Eastern blocs.

The disaster of the Libya operation is in line with political and operational shifts in France. In 2008, then president Nicolas Sarkozy made France reintegrate with NATO without asking Parliament for a vote. His successor, Francois Hollande – “heir” of socialist leaders such as Guy Mollet and Francois Mitterrand – has continued on the same path, making sure that French diplomacy follows the guidelines of the US, NATO, Israel and the Gulf countries.

Shirking responsibility 

It is easy for Barack Obama to incriminate Cameron and Sarkozy for the Libyan war. He plays a Pontius Pilate of sorts. This war started with the partial and one-sided interpretation of the Security Council 1973 Resolution, which deals with no-fly zones and humanitarian aid for civilians, and it would not have been possible without the support of the Pentagon, the satellites and radars, and the support of NATO. Just because the Americans decided to stay behind the scenes does not mean that they are not accountable for this disaster.

Just because the Americans decided to stay behind the scenes does not mean that they are not accountable for this disaster

The British and French militaries - who were in charge of the “dirty work” - knew they could execute the field operations perfectly. But they also knew from the beginning that this war was “tarnished”. Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, was already negotiating a political solution with Muammar Gaddafi, a process which two French foreign ministers were aware of but did not care about. Equally, the objectives of this war were unclear and unplanned.

When it comes to the US responsibility in the war as well as NATO’s, the British report remains a bit cryptic. Ideologically, the Harmattan Operation implies and echoes the “war on terror” waged under the two Bush administrations, and carried on by Barack Obama.

On 5 and 6 September, during the Defence Summer School, the chief of staff of the French army General Pierre de Villiers bravely gave a lesson to the French, British and US political leaders: “Having a strategy that is exclusively based on military forces will never be able to uproot violence that is rooted in lack of hope, of education, of justice, of development, of governing structure, of consideration. Military action is only one part of the answer to the crisis . . . Winning the war doesn’t mean winning the peace, and we cannot destroy an ideology (terrorism) only with bombs.” Well said.

- Richard Labévière is the editor in chief of the online magazine and writes for the monthly magazine Afrique-Asie (Africa-Asia). Former editor at Radio France Internationale (RFI) and the periodical Defense, published by the Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defence, he is also a consultant in defence and security matters. He has written 15 books, including « Les dollars de la terreur » (Dollars for terror), « Oussama Ben Laden ou le meurtre du père » (Osama bin Laden or killing the father), « Les coulisses de la terreur » (Behind the scenes of terror) and « Vérités et mythologies du 11 septembre » (Truth and myths surrounding September 11). He is a reserve officer of the operational reserve. His next book, « Terrorisme, face cachée de la mondialisaton » (Terrorism- the hidden side of Globalisation) will be published in November. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

Photo: in 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy made France reintegrating with NATO without asking Parliament for a vote. His successor, François Hollande, would carry on on the same path by making sure that French diplomacy follows the U.S guidelines (AFP)

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye's French website and translated by Nassima Demiche.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.