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France: Who is Paul Soler, Macron’s ‘Mr Libya’?

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Thursday, 16 December 2021 08:55

Paul Soler (l.) with US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland (r.), 28 April 2021. © US Embassy France

After putting his weight behind Marshal Haftar, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, through his special envoy to Libya Paul Soler, has chosen a more pragmatic strategy to mark Paris’ return to the game.

A week and half before Libya’s presidential election, Paris is closely monitoring the electoral process. Paul Soler, France’s special envoy on the ground, is in charge of this dossier.

President Macron’s discreet ‘Mr Libya’ returned to the forefront in March to manage this strategic issue for France. At stake is the Mediterranean basin’s security.

On 12 November in Paris, France scored diplomatic points by holding the international conference on Libya, which had been organised by Soler. The project manager of French policy on Libya had to work hard to ensure that Paris could return to managing this crucial geostrategic issue, especially since Turkey and Russia now exert a considerable amount of influence in the country, through the presence of Turkish military forces and members of the Russian paramilitary company Wagner.

For its part, the EU is struggling to remain united in its approach, as Berlin has taken the lead in the negotiations to end the crisis. Paris, on the other hand, is looking to establish a better relationship with Libya’s transitional government.

“The best-case scenario”

After having long supported Khalifa Haftar, the Élysée is now considering different scenarios. Ever since the electoral process was launched, Soler has been meeting more frequently with the main candidates: Abdulhamid Dabaiba, Fathi Bachagha, Haftar, Aref Ali Nayed, etc. The special envoy also took part in the latest meeting of the so-called 5+5 joint military committee, whose objective is to reunify the army, in Tunis.

France’s Libyan policy has become a bit more pragmatic.

“The best-case scenario for Paris would be to have an interlocutor in the next government and to be able to officially announce the departure of foreign forces,” says a source close to the Libyan dossier.

For his part, Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, argues that Paris could now accept that interim Prime Minister Dabaiba remain in power for the medium term, even though he is close to Turkey.

“Recently, France’s Libyan policy has become a bit more pragmatic,” says the Libya specialist. This “modest change” seems to align with Emirati diplomacy, as “the will of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed is to cultivate a form of dialogue with Ankara”.

Haftar is losing ground

Paris seems to have instructed Soler to reconsider its position towards Haftar, who lost his shine after his failed offensive on Tripoli in 2020. His last visit to the French capital, where he was received several times, dates back to March 2020. His chances of winning the election are mathematically weak.

The western candidates have a higher population density than the east and therefore a numerical advantage at the ballot box, but Haftar could manage to maintain an alliance with the Misrati candidate Bachagha.

According to Harchaoui, “Paris has sympathy for former interior minister Bachagha, who positions himself as a revolutionary figure from Misrata capable of working closely with Haftar and Aguila Saleh, the parliamentary president”.

Even so, according to the researcher, France has not totally revised its approach and continues to model its strategy on that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Marshal Haftar’s financial supporter.

The problem is that the Haftar card worked well on paper, but the Libyan specificities were not taken into account enough.

“Paul Soler has long been the figurehead in Paris of this very biased Libyan policy, always loyal to Abu Dhabi and by appointing him as special envoy to Libya in early 2021, the Macron presidency has demonstrated that sacrosanct loyalty to the UAE remains an immutable reality,” he says.

Despite its closeness to Haftar, the Elysée has always assured that it did not support Haftar militarily. According to an authorised French source, “at a time when former president Fayez al-Sarraj was losing his footing against the militias, a solution had to be found. As Haftar had an army in the east, we encouraged negotiations between the two men.” Paris then held the La Celle-Saint-Cloud conference in July 2017, followed by a new meeting in 2018, which had no tangible results.

France also justified its support to Haftar by saying that it was trying to curb the rise of Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia, which had become stronger amid the instability. “Haftar was actively fighting terrorism,” says our source, recalling the “anti-jihadist” battles he led to retake Benghazi and Derna in 2017 and 2018. In fact, Paris was not far away, as the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure had provided intelligence support to Haftar.

“The problem is that the Haftar card worked well on paper, but the Libyan specificities were not taken into account enough. The tribal alliances were neglected, as evidenced by the failure to take Tripoli,” said another source close to the case.

Shadow adviser

Soler, who officially returned to the forefront in March, is used to the Libyan terrain. He was an army commander from the 13th Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes that specialised in intelligence for the Chef d’Etat-Major des Armées and the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales. As such, he was present when the operation carried out in support of the popular uprising against Muammar Gaddafi took place in 2011. He also returned in 2016, when Sarraj’s Government of National Accord was established.

Above all, he managed the Libyan dossier from 2017 to 2019 as an adviser part of President Macron’s private staff. People were surprised when his name appeared to be absent from the Elysée’s organisation chart. Soler was then in charge of defining France’s political line in Libya, alongside the Elysée’s Africa advisor, Franck Paris, and the former diplomatic advisor, Philippe Etienne.

In contact with the various local actors, Soler had increased the number of meetings held on the ground. His rapprochement with Haftar had then led to tensions with Brigitte Curmi, the French ambassador to Libya. The latter, who had favoured discussions with the authorities in Tripoli, was replaced in July 2018 by Béatrice Le Fraper du Hellen.

In 2020, Soler was appointed first adviser to the French ambassador in Jordan. However, some observers felt that the timing of this break echoed Haftar’s attempt to conquer Tripoli in April 2019.

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