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Why France is wary of Turkey in Libya

The ever-rising tension between NATO allies Turkey and France reached a new height when Paris claimed that off the coast of Libya last month, Turkish frigates targeted a French navy vessel with their radar, the last step before the actual firing of the missile, as it was seeking to inspect a cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons to Libya.

Subsequently, France lodged a formal complaint to NATO for an investigation. But to Paris’s dismay, only eight out of 30 member states supported its criticism of Turkey, with the U.S. and U.K. siding with Turkey. After NATO concluded on July 1 that the French claims could not be verified, Paris announced last week that it had decided to pull out from the NATO mission Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea.

The recent incident is preceded by many other bilateral quarrels such as French President Emmanuel Macron blaming Ankara in November 2019 (after Turkey’s Syria incursion) for rendering the alliance “brain dead,” and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reciprocating, saying that “It is Macron who is brain dead.” The spat is most visible in Libya, where France has supported warlord Khalifa Haftar, who has been, so far unsuccessfully, trying to remove Fayez al-Sarraj, the U.N.-recognized, Turkey-backed head of the Libyan government.   

So, why is France wary of Turkey in Libya? Simply put, Ankara’s geopolitical ascendance in the Middle East in general and its emergence as “a kingmaker” in Libya, in particular, has the serious potential ability to spoil France’s economic and geopolitical interests in Africa. 

For France, Libya’s control is paramount as it constitutes a crucial gateway to its former colonies in West Africa. In 1945, France established a financial structure for dominance over its West African colonies called the Colonies Françaises d’Afrique. The common currency CFA Franc, which was used by 14 West African states until 2019, had been criticized for being a tool of neocolonialism that left countries without control of their own currency, ensuring Paris’s control of the wealth in the region.

At the time, then-Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was a direct threat to the CFA Franc. The April 2011 correspondence (which was disclosed by Wikileaks) between then-U.S. Secretary State Hillary Clinton and her longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal, reveals that Gaddafi owned “143 tons of gold, and a similar amount in silver… and it was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency based on the Libyan golden Dinar which would provide the Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French (CFA).” It is not surprising that France’s military intervention in Libya in March 2011, Opération Harmattan, resulted in Gaddafi’s removal. 

However, for France, things are not going well in West Africa. The body count is mounting in France’s Operation Barkhane, the military campaign in the Sahel/West Africa, where Paris sent an estimated 4,500 military personnel with the proclaimed goal of eliminating extremism.

Since 2013, at least 44 French soldiers have been killed. Most recently, in Mali, two French helicopters collided in mid-air, leaving thirteen soldiers dead, with militants on the ground claiming they shot them down. It was France’s highest military death toll since 1983 when 58 paratroopers were killed in a truck bombing in Lebanon. The soaring French death toll in Africa also gives the impression that Macron is getting bogged down in his own “endless wars.” Even worse, the anti-French sentiment has grown considerably among the people of G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) as France has failed to prevent the loss of thousands of civilians to terror attacks.

Frustrated, Macron sent the G5 leaders invitations (some argued he summoned them) to discuss the rising anti-French sentiment. Ironically, the meeting, which was slated for early 2020, was canceled after 71 Nigerien soldiers were killed by terrorists in a brazen attack on a military camp located near Niger’s border with Mali. France’s misfortunes in the region have also compelled Macron to ask President Trump not to draw down American forces in Africa.    

As if Turkey’s assertiveness in Libya is not enough of a headache for Paris, Erdogan has made it his priority to extend the Turkish influence in West Africa. Taking aim at the French colonial past in Africa, Erdogan declared in Gabon in 2013 that “Africa belongs to Africans; we are not here for your gold.”

At the second Turkey-Africa Summit in Equatorial Guinea in 2014, Erdogan said, “Turkey will side with the African nations as a new world order is being established.” Ankara’s strongest weapon against France in West Africa is its cultural and historical background. For instance, in 2019, in Ghana, the Turkish government opened one of the biggest mosques in Africa and is actively involved in food distribution across the region. In 2018, Erdogan conducted a visit to Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, aiming at further consolidating Turkey’s presence in West Africa.

Turkey has also set its eyes on former French colonies Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In December 2019, Erdogan paid a surprise visit to Tunisia in an attempt to sway the currently neutral Tunisian position about Libya in favor of Turkey. The next month, Erdogan visited Algeria’s Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had called the Sarraj controlled Tripoli “a red line no one should cross.” While the Maghreb countries have been torn between France and Turkey, the outcome of the Libyan civil war will make it easier for the leaders of those north African states to make up their minds. 

Having been frustrated by increasing Turkish presence in its backyard, Paris has been doing everything to pause and if possible, rollback Ankara’s gains in Libya, where a Turkish victory might mean the beginning of the unraveling of French dominion in Africa. Despite its rhetoric of upholding the Libyan arms embargo, Paris is known to have provided arms to Turkey’s arch-foe, Hafter.

France’s only nuclear aircraft carrier Charles DeGaulle attempted, albeit failed due to COVID-19 cases on board, to deter Turkey’s advancements in Libya. France has been the main sponsor for Operation Irini, the EU mission which aims to halt arms transfers into Libya. Here too, France’s attempts to block Turkey have been proven ineffective as Malta, a strategic Mediterranean EU member, decided to withdraw its support from the operation and the Turkish frigate physically prevented a Greek frigate from searching a vessel en route to Libya from Turkey.

Finally, it has yet to be seen how Macron’s cozying up to Russia against Turkey in Libya will play out. One thing for sure, Macron is courting Putin at a time when Russia is bolstering its presence in Libya. This has disturbed the Pentagon and is negatively affecting the way the majority of NATO members see France; as seen with the recent NATO decision where a majority of its member states sided with Turkey.    

With lower than ever approval ratings (33 percent), embittered with the recent defeat in mayoral elections, pressured by such thorny issues as the Yellow Vest protests, and the highly controversial pension reform, Macron is trying hard to stay afloat by attempting to score points in foreign policy. However, his failure to counter Turkey in Libya has already had “some within the French foreign ministry and security apparatuses push back.” With last week’s still unattributed airstrike on Turkey’s Al-Watiya base in Libya rendering the Turkish retaliation and the initiation of Turkey’s Sirte offensive highly likely, Macron is going to have to pay extra attention to Libya in the coming days. One thing that appears for sure; the Turkish-French rivalry is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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