On Sept. 15, 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, addressed a crowd in Tripoli, Libya. "France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people," he said, to cheers.
Almost four years later, Libya is in trouble again and a new French president is calling on the international community to act. "If we do nothing [...] terrorism [...] will spread throughout the region," Francois Hollande said during his speech at the 2014 Conference of Ambassadors on Thursday. "So France is asking the U.N., because it is they who must take responsibility, to organize exceptional support to help the Libyan authorities to restore their state."
Hollande's concern is no exaggeration. Libya's slide into violence may be overshadowed by other world crises, but it's clearly a dangerous, chaotic situation that seems likely to have a broader regional impact. It's impossible, however, to look at Hollande's statement and not get a sense of déjà vu.
Back in 2011, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi seemed to be winning a brutal, horrific civil war against Arab Spring-sparked rebels. It was France, then led by Sarkozy, that led the calls for a foreign reaction.
At first, the requests were tentative. In February, Sarkozy had said that military intervention wasn't a good option, but that “France’s position is clear, Mr. Gaddafi must go." Things soon changed. “This is urgent,” France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, wrote in a blog post urging international intervention in March. “We have often seen in our contemporary history that the weakness of democracies leaves the field open to dictatorships. It is not too late to defy this rule.”
A couple of days later, things kicked off. France, backed by NATO and with a no-fly zone approved by the U.N. Security Council, fired its first shots against Gaddafi's forces on March 19, 2011. The French ended up spearheading an international military foray that was to prove vital for the struggling Libyan rebels. By September, Sarkozy and Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, a key ally in the intervention, were in Tripoli, receiving a hero's welcome (the crowd reportedly chanted, “One, two, three — Merci Sarkozy.") The two world leaders vowed to help hunt down Gaddafi, who met his fate a little over a month later.
Unlike many other interventions, Libya was initially viewed as a success – "NATO's operation in Libya has rightly been hailed as a model intervention," Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis wrote in one Foreign Affairs article. For France, it was a powerful sign that the country could still lead on the international stage, despite being caught on the back foot by earlier Arab Spring protests. And for Sarkozy, an unpopular president for much of his time in office, the action in Libya seemed to boost his popularity (but not quite enough: He was ousted in the 2012 election by Hollande).
Looking back, Libya seemed to mark the start of France's more muscular foreign policy stance; a shift from the France of 2003 that had refused to get involved in Iraq. In 2012, Sarkozy, no longer president, actually urged an intervention modeled on Libya in Syria, and Hollande later signaled a willingness to back the United States if it intervened in Syria. Under Hollande, France focused on sub-Saharan Africa, with key interventions in Mali and Central African Republic. France recently announced its plans to shift the focus of its Mali-based force to transnational terrorism in Mali, Niger, and Chad. For Hollande, international intervention seems to distract from his unpopular domestic policies.
Now, by calling for international action in Libya again, France seems to have come full circle – and it may need to reassess the success of 2011. What looked like a righteous victory at the time now looks difficult in hindsight: Sure, it got rid of Gaddafi, a horrible leader waging a horrible war, but it left a country full of rival armed militias that clearly lacked the foundations for statehood. While the military intervention itself may have been a success, subsequent state-building clearly wasn't.
At present, Hollande's tone seems tempered. That's likely a reflection of the complexity of the situation currently in Libya, but also an awkward acknowledgment that the legacy of France's last intervention is mixed at best. But if someone is going to call on the international community to take action in Libya, perhaps it's appropriate that it's a French president.