Is France Changing Its Tune as the Libya War Drags On?

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Supporters of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attend a rally to protest the coalition airstrikes in Tripoli June 17, 2011. (Photo: Ahmed Jadallah - Reuters)

There’s currently a lot of activity, a good measure of confusion, but no real sign of progress in France towards an eventual resolution to the NATO-led intervention in Libya that Paris was instrumental in launching. And it’s against that backdrop of somewhat chaotic operation slog that the French parliament is being asked Tuesday to approve or refuse the extension of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s four-month military action in Libya. The good news for Sarkozy is there’s virtually no risk of even opposition politicians objecting to a continuation of the Libyan campaign. The bad news is such bipartisan support won’t do much to mask the reality that no one has any real idea of how or when the mission initially sold as a short one might actually end—which will doubtless leave the unity behind it with a rather limited shelf life.

The specter of what has become an open-ended Libyan conflict grinding on indefinitely became an even larger concern this week, after conflicting signs arose in both France and Libya about whether Paris was carrying on direct negotiations with the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi despite its repeated denials of such contacts. Questions also surfaced about whether Paris has softened its long-held position Gaddafi must leave power as a condition to ending the intervention. On Sunday, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet appeared to step back from Paris’ hard-line stand on Gaddafi’s ouster by telling BFM TV France is encouraging Gaddafi’s government and rebel forces fighting it to nurture their frail contacts into full-blown peace negotiations. When asked if Gaddafi would be able to participate in talks about defining Libya’s future before relinquishing his power and title as nation’s leader—a requisite France and its allies had previously made clear–Longuet appeared to waffle, saying “He will be in another room in his palace, with another title”. To many observers, that sounded like the beginnings of a diplomatic climb-down in the hopes of bringing about a faster resolution to the enduring conflict.

Probably not too coincidentally, Longuet’s comments were followed up just hours later by statements from Saif al-Islam Gaddafi alleging his father’s government was already in negotiations directly “with France and not with the rebels”. Painting those opposition forces as merely Paris’ lackeys, the younger Gaddafi told Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper that French officials had assured his father’s envoys “’when we reach an agreement with you, we will force (rebel leaders) to cease fire’”. Not surprisingly, French Foreign Ministry officials responded by categorically denying France was in direct contact with Gaddafi’s regime, and repeated the Libyan’s ouster was not negotiable. Yet on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé seemed to modify the message on Libya again, suggesting France was sounding Gaddafi out through indirect channels—though still with the objective of securing his departure.

“Everyone (party to the Libyan war) has contacts with everyone else– the Libyan regime sends its messengers all over, to Turkey, to New York, to Paris,” Juppé told France Info radio Tuesday morning. “We receive emissaries who are saying, ‘Gaddafi is prepared to leave. Let’s discuss it’…The question is no longer whether Gaddafi is going to leave power, but when and how.”

That “how” is significant indeed—especially given other comments seeming to echo Longuet’s indication Sunday that some diplomatic sleight of hand might be used to help find a negotiated solution. Ignoring the historic mantra on both sides of the Atlantic that “Gaddafi must go”, Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi on Tuesday reprised Longuet’s idea that Gaddafi might somehow be part of a political solution while still giving Western foes and rebels plausible deniability that the Libyan leader was sidelined from game. “(Gaddafi) will not intervene in discussions, (and) he is ready to respect the decision of the people,” al-Mahnoudi said in an interview with French daily le Figaro, in which he also demanded a halt to NATO bombing as a condition for negotiating a political settlement. “You can’t create democracy under bombs. It doesn’t work like that.”

What does it all mean? According to François Sergent in the editorial of Tuesday’s Libération, it shows “Paris sending ambiguous signals about the possibility of negotiating with Gaddafi, who may even be able to stay in Libya”. That would be a major change indeed. And the reason behind it, Libération’s Tuesday front page headline “Libya: France Is Trapped” suggests, is that leaders in Paris now clearly see their military efforts to rid Libya of Gaddafi and pave the way for a more democratic regime aren’t likely to come to fruition anytime soon. And if the apparent change in tone is indeed suggestive of a willingness by Paris to cut a deal with Gaddafi–a move that would doubtless provoke opposition from the U.S. and UK–it comes at a significant moment within French politics that may ultimately out-weigh many international concerns.

Because while Tuesday’s vote on prolonging the NATO-led Libyan air intervention is a mostly a formality, it will involve debate likely to grow hotter as the weeks go by. The new constitutional obligation for French governments to seek legislative approval of any conflict lasting more than four months was one Sarkozy himself introduced early in his presidency—in part to give elected officials more say about (and carry political responsibility for) potentially exhausting missions like the one in Afghanistan. But while that war—like the operation in Libya—still enjoys the backing of most mainstream politicians, attitudes are likely to change in the coming months as the duration and costs of the Libyan mission grow. The risk of souring views will increase even more with the approach of general elections—and Sarkozy’s campaign to return to the Elysée—next spring, when some opposition candidates will likely seek to score political points by turning on the president’s leading role in getting allies to join the grinding Libyan operation in the first place.

Despite the hypocrisy such a reversal by rivals would represent, it seems clear the current government waffling about Gaddafi’s possible role in negotiations is aimed at bringing about a more rapid end to the warring–even if that involves a compromised outcome. The reason: to remove that costly and deadly mission as a potential item of campaign debate, and allow time to pass for French voters to forget about the operation before taking to the polls. If that’s the case, however, that strategy carries a major risk. If the apparent attempts now underway to create the conditions allowing Gaddafi to be part of a negotiated solution more quickly also permit him to remain in some sort of position of power once the bombing raids have ended, Sarkozy will have a tough time answering questions about just how wise and useful his intervention ultimately was. Either way, it now no longer seems impossible to imagine Gaddafi looking at France’s electoral calendar feeling certain he’ll come out of the conflict able to claim victory over some of his biggest foes.