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Sep 5, 2018 | 09:30 GMT

9 mins read

France and Italy Each Go Their Own Way on Libya

Members of the Libyan Special Forces, who are loyal to Khalifa Hifter, ride in a pickup truck past a billboard bearing the strongman's image in Benghazi during September 2017.
  • The competition among European powers in Libya will continue to undermine attempts to solve the country's underlying political crises.
  • The rise of far-right parties in Italy will force Rome to deepen its involvement in Libya as it seeks to reduce migrant flows and protect its economic interests — both of which center on western Libya.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron's quest to reassert Paris' international role and the consequences of Libyan insecurity to France's former African colonies will oblige Paris to continue backing a strong military force in Libya through a figure such as Khalifa Hifter.
  • Because France and Italy both view Libya as a natural sphere of influence, their conflicting goals will compound the competition over the country.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming quarter.

There's much that France and Italy agree on when it comes to Libya: Both want to stabilize the country so it doesn't become a haven for terrorism or a staging ground for African migrants, and both wish to prevent its two squabbling governments from fighting each other. But try as they might, the two countries just can't get onto the same page. Paris and Rome back opposite sides in the conflict, and they have two very different views on what should happen next. After bringing together Libya's main players for a conference in May, Paris persuaded the various factions to hold elections on Dec. 10. Rome, in contrast, has no wish for any elections this year and is planning to hold its own conference on the future of Libya in October. The divergence stems in part from the countries' different goals and areas of interest in Libya, and as long as Paris and Rome offer alternative paths for mediation of the North African conflict, the prospects for success appear bleak.

The Big Picture

Over the past two years, Rome and Paris have rekindled their long-running competition in Libya. The two back differing sides in the North African country's conflict and have assumed a more assertive role to meet their own respective geopolitical imperatives. The result has added another layer of complexity to the already-complex Libyan civil war.

History Repeats Itself

The competition among European powers — Italy and France in particular — in North Africa dates back to the 19th century. Unlike Britain and France, Italy emerged as a colonial power late, only making forays onto the African continent after the country's unification in 1871. As the scramble for Africa began, Rome viewed the then-Ottoman territories of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as part of its sphere of influence. To capture the areas — which would eventually become known as Italy's "fourth shore" — Rome initially signed a series of treaties from 1900 to 1902 in which it recognized French control over Morocco in exchange for Paris' pledge that it would not attempt to seize the Libyan territories. In 1911, Italy ordered an invasion of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, ultimately grabbing the areas from the Ottoman Empire.

Italy controlled its fourth shore until World War II. In the aftermath of the conflagration, the victorious powers carved up Italian Libya into three zones under French and British control. The wave of decolonization in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s (Libya became independent in 1951) reduced French and British influence, but Paris has retained deep ties to its former colonial possessions and continues to play a prominent role there, particularly in West Africa.

Italy enjoyed little success in its attempts to renew its influence in Libya when it became an international pariah under the rule of Moammar Gadhafi. But as Gadhafi made overtures to the West in 2003, then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved to court the strongman. Within two years, Rome opened the strategic Greenstream natural gas pipeline to bring Libyan natural gas to Italy. Then, in 2008, Berlusconi and Gadhafi agreed to a $5 billion deal in which Italy agreed to pay Libya reparations for incidents that occurred during colonial rule, while Gadhafi agreed to help stymie the flow of African migrants heading to