PARIS (AFP) — France is presenting itself as Europe’s main defender against Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean and especially Libya, but may find it hard to translate its tough rhetoric into action on the ground.
President Emmanuel Macron vowed this week to step up France’s naval presence in the region after accusing his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of sending ships laden with pro-Ankara Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya.
The long-running conflict in Libya — prompted by the bloody overthrow of dictator Muammar Gadhafi in 2011 that left the country in chaos — has split the international community and become the latest proxy confrontation between regional foes.
Macron has expressed exasperation with Erdogan on a string of issues, such as allegedly illicit energy exploration off Cyprus, the launch of a military operation in Syria without international consent, and contributing to what he called the “brain death” of NATO.
But Turkey insists that France has no right to criticize, accusing Paris of meddling as well in the Libya conflict while turning a blind eye to interference by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
At a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Macron accused Erdogan of failing to “keep his word” on pledges made at a conference in Berlin this month supposed to settle the Libya conflict.
“Against a regime that no longer sees any limits to its action, there needs to be a moment when it is told to stop,” said Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Turkey.
“Politically, it is easy to do, and this is what is being done in Paris. On the ground, it is infinitely more complicated,” he said. “But Ankara only understands the language of force.”
Macron also announced the creation of a strategic security partnership between France and Greece, modern Turkey’s traditional rival but also a fellow NATO member, as well as an enhanced French naval presence.
France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, already deployed in the area, this week spotted a Turkish frigate escorting a ship delivering armored vehicles to Tripoli in defiance of a UN embargo, a French military source said Thursday.
But France, whose military is deployed on multiple fronts and under budgetary constraints, “is at the limit of its capacity for maritime action,” armies chief of staff Francois Lecointre told parliament in November.
France is more in a “state of reaction than action” over developments in Libya, said Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a researcher at the Thomas More Institute.
“The aircraft carrier is there, and it is the chance to make a show of force. But will there be a coherent policy which is not simply made up of jabs and rhetoric?” he asked.
Turkey backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that has been fighting an offensive launched by fighters loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a general based in the east who controls three-quarters of Libyan territory.
Turkey’s parliament this month approved a bill approving a military deployment to Libya to shore up the government, but Ankara insists that the number of Turkish troops is small and that they are there only to train Libyan forces.
But the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — staunch foes of Erdogan’s Turkey — back pro-Haftar forces.
Russia, which has worked closely with Turkey on efforts to end the Syria conflict, is also seen as backing Haftar, though it denies funding mercenaries on the ground from the private Wagner group.
The GNA and Turkey have accused Paris of supporting Haftar and backing his assault on Tripoli, claims denied by French officials.
Meanwhile, the UN embargo is systematically flouted, with France far less vocal about alleged violations by the UAE and Egypt in favor of Haftar.
Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that France supported Haftar militarily up to early 2019 and remains a key supporter at the diplomatic level.
“What’s problematic about the French criticism of Turkey’s involvement in Libya is that France has never directed the same criticism toward the UAE and Egypt,” Lacher said.
Europe is itself divided: Libya’s former colonial ruler Italy is keen to play the role of mediator, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of burning bridges with Erdogan amid a fragile deal on restricting immigrant flows to Europe.
“What counts now is the unity of Europe. And for now what we have is two different approaches and it is not good,” Pierini said.
© Agence France-Presse