France-Libya: Marshal Haftar, the controversial friend of the Élysée
Officially, Paris recognizes the legitimacy of the Tripoli government and supports the political process. In practice, it is the controversial Khalifa Haftar who is in its favour. It is a relationship as privileged as it is risky.
“He who dares wins.” This is the motto of the 1st Infantry Parachute Regiment of the French Navy (1st RPIMa), which was for a long time the armed wing of the DGSE’s Action service.
“It’s also a Macron motto!” said Michel Scarbonchi, smiling as discussed French policy in Libya.
“For the President, the military are more important than the diplomats, who do not have a culture of risk,” said the man who was a ‘Chevènementist’ [centrist] MEP until 2004. Today, he is a lobbyist and one of Khalifa Haftar’s main spokesmen in the French capital.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and now France — a weak supporter of the controversial Marshal in the Libyan civil war — are regularly cited as the states which support Haftar.
Officially, Paris recognizes the legitimacy of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and supports the political process.
Our friend the Marshal
But it is, in fact, Haftar, who is attacking the same government, to whom the favours of France go.
The head of the Libyan National Army (ANL) was again received by Emmanuel Macron on 9 March — for the fourth time in three years.
These links go back to 2011, but which Paris was not forced to acknowledge until the summer of 2016, when three French NCOs of the DGSE on “commanded service” died in a helicopter crash in the Benghazi region.
It was during this period that Michel Scarbonchi made contact with the Haftar clan, first through Haftar’s his diplomatic adviser, Fadel el-Dib, before meeting with the marshal himself.
“I was not mandated by anyone, even if it was parallel diplomacy,” he admitted.
As François Hollande’s five-year term ended and Emmanuel Macron’s was about to begin, Scarbonchi was working with Jean-Yves Le Drian fostering further cooperation with Haftar.
Le Drian, who was still Minister of Defence at the time, and who would be appointed to the Foreign Office a few months later, met Fadel el-Dib in Paris through Scarbonchi.
According to Scarbonchi, the marshal’s adviser never made a mystery of his boss’s ambitions. “In 2016, Fadel el-Dib explained Haftar’s plan to the French: first Cyrenaica, then Fezzan, and finally Tripoli,” he stated.
The political links between Haftar and France were still tenuous at the time, according to the former of the 1st RPIMa. They would develop later, under the impulse of Jean-Yves Le Drian.
During François Hollande’s period in office, between 2014 and 2015, and while he was at the Defence Ministry, Le Drian was thinking of taking in hand Libya, where France was then marginalized.
In the eyes of Paris, the instability of the country represented two threats: migration in the Mediterranean and security in the Sahel.
A vision that gives the military the upper hand on the issue, to the detriment of the diplomats of the Quai d’Orsay.
This focus is no longer denied.
“During this period, Paris was obsessed with the idea of finding a single Libyan interlocutor for all aspects of the crisis — military, political, and economic. One thing leading to another, Le Drian began to walk on the flowerbeds of Laurent Fabius [then French Minister of Foreign Affairs],” said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute and a specialist on Libya.
Le Drian’s ambition suits Haftar, with whom France had already cooperated militarily during the capture of one of the last Kadhafist bastions in 2011.
Added to this, one of his strongest supporters, the new Egyptian President Sissi, is opening an enchanted era with France thanks to his great interest in the Rafale jet fighter, whose merits Le Drian was delighted to praise in Cairo.
The operation is financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a longstanding strategic partner of Paris and a key ally of Haftar. “There is no doubt about the axis that is being established at this time between Mohammed Ben Zayed [MBZ, Crown Prince of the UAE] and Le Drian over Libya,” commented one observer.
Some detect, as early as 2011, the imprint of the UAE in the Libyan policy of France, until then, under President Sarkozy, who was close to Qatar.
“The Emiratis have made the French understand that they had the wrong partner,” Harchaoui said. “When France parachuted arms to the rebels in Zintan in June 2011 in violation of the embargo, it was the Emirati who pointed them to the town because of its fierce opposition to political Islam.”
The man from Paris
In 2015, the pieces are all in place and the Marshal becomes Paris’s man.
“This is the beginning of a multifaceted encounter,” said Harchaoui. “The French know that Daesh is setting up shop in Derna and that the Islamists control part of Benghazi.”
In Fezzan, armed groups from Mali are withdrawing and regathering their forces, which is a problem for the soldiers of Operation Barkhane.
Special forces are sent to eastern Libya to support Haftar’s offensive against the two coastal towns, which was resumed between 2017 and 2018, at the cost of serious destruction and credible suspicions of war crimes.
According to various sources, the French from the DGSE did not take part in the fighting, although they were operating on the front line.
Estimated at a few dozen, they provided advice, training, and information.
From a security point of view, the relationship between Paris and Haftar became more political.
At the Élysée Palace, where Emmanuel Macron settled in 2017, Paul Soler, ex-13th Parachute Dragon Regiment, was put forward as “Mr. Libya”. Promoted since then to commander in the army, the man, who was already present in the field in 2011, is appreciated at the Élysée for his knowledge of the Libyan context.
“He was even briefly arrested by the Kadhafists,” said Michel Scarbonchi. “He had a very good image with the Haftar clan thanks to that. And he was already listened to under Holland.”
The new French president wanted to take over the Libyan dossier.
In July 2017, a few months after the meeting between Dib and Le Drian, Macron was organising an inter-Libyan meeting between Fayez el-Sarraj, head of the government resulting from the Skhirat accords, and Khalifa Haftar, appointed two years earlier as “head of the Libyan army” by the House of Representatives in Benghazi.
In La Celle-Saint-Cloud, the marshal is elevated to the dignity of a political leader of international stature. In answer to criticism, Le Drian denied siding with Haftar, but admitted that “he is part of the solution”.
The government no longer deviated from this line and fully integrated Haftar into the Paris-sponsored political process, which hosted a new meeting in May 2018.
It was an opportunity for Sarraj and Haftar to shake hands and promise to hold elections as soon as possible… under Macron’s satisfied gaze.
“The reality was denied: the second meeting was a failure because there was no signed document. The Misrata representatives had sent a letter assuring their presence, but warning that they would not make any commitments,” lamented a figure familiar with the file. “But Paris held the meeting anyway…”
Strengthening of relations between Paris and Tripoli
The French approach to focus on Sarraj and Haftar is interpreted as tacit support for the latter. Especially given the isolation of Sarraj, the head of a government whose ministerial offices are regularly occupied by the Tripolitan militias.
The French plan failed at the end of 2018, but Le Drian became a regular in Benghazi, where he developed an ongoing relationship with the marshal. During one of his visits, in March 2019, Haftar reproached him for not having come for a long time; the head of French diplomacy shot back, “We were waiting for your victories!”
A few weeks later, the Marshal launched his offensive against Tripoli, which permanently compromised the political process. The relations between Paris and Tripoli became fraught, with Sarraj openly accusing France of supporting Haftar’s attack.
Defeating political Islam
This support takes on a new dimension with the Turkish intervention in favour of the GNA, with Macron mixing the fight against political Islam on his territory with that against Ankara’s expansionism.
“One of the facets, often underestimated, of France’s support for Haftar is the ideological alignment with the United Arab Emirates regarding the place of political Islam,” said Emadeddin Badi, a researcher at the Carnegie Center. “There is the idea that political Islam cannot be allowed to retain a role, either domestically or in other countries where Paris wants to project its influence.”
Harchaoui agreed. “France could have seen in Haftar only a security provider, without agreeing to follow him in his desire to control Tripoli, to lump together moderates and jihadists, that is to say, to wage war for political ends,” he added.
Alongside the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — the true allies of the NLA — Russia has today taken France’s place on the list of Haftar’s main protectors, notably on the UN Security Council.
But until Tripoli is taken, French support is still sought by the Benghazi clan. “France is its presentable support,” Scarbonchi said.
Abdulhadi Lahouij, the foreign minister of the unrecognized Benghazi government (pro-Haftar), never misses an opportunity to stop in Paris, sometimes guided by the Franco-Tunisian imam, Hassen Chalghoumi.
Scarbonchi assures that Lahouij met “only deputies” who are in fact French politicians. Anxious to be less partisan, France doesn’t want to cut itself off from Tripoli, where the Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, is imposing himself as the man on the rise.
He recently received the director of the North Africa department of the Quai d’Orsay, Christophe Farnaud, who invited him back to France.
Nevertheless, Bashagha’s visit to Paris, scheduled for 15 March, will have been preceded by that of Khalifa Haftar a week earlier.