Emmanuel Macron set himself to brokering a peace deal in war-torn Libya, in what the French president hopes will be a distraction from tumbling domestic approval ratings and conflicts with France’s armed forces.
Mr Macron convened a peace summit in Paris on Tuesday attended by Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army that controls large tracts of territory, to discuss a power-sharing deal to reunite the country.
However, Mr Macron’s attempt to bring peace in Libya drew criticism from allies, just as the shine has started to come off his domestic popularity.
“There are too many open formats in Libya, too many mediators, too many initiatives,” Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister, told La Stampa, the Italian daily. “The French one won’t be the first and I fear it won’t be the last.”
In a statement released on Tuesday by the Elysée Palace, the two Libyan leaders committed to a ceasefire as well as to “continue political dialogue” in an effort to achieve a “national reconciliation that involves all Libyans”.
But analysts warned the French intervention could only make the situation in Libya worse by giving legitimacy to General Haftar. “The likely outcome will be Haftar’s international legitimisation without him actually having to give up anything. In this sense, it will make Italy’s goal of stabilising Libya even harder,” said Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
Macron is going fast, very fast. But trying to get anywhere fast is a risk — you can end up falling down hard
The reaction was a far cry from Mr Macron’s early forays into foreign affairs, notably his grand introductory meetings with President Donald Trump of the US and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader. The French president won a series of early public relations victories after he dominated a handshake with Mr Trump, showed Mr Putin around Versailles palace and posted a series of viral tweets on the environment.
The Libya criticism highlights how bitter reality is grating against Mr Macron’s once spotless image as he moves away from the rousing rhetoric of his campaign and into the detail of foreign and domestic policy.
He has already made his first foreign policy gaff when at the recent G20 meeting he launched into a discourse on Africa’s “civilisational” challenge, stirring anger in France and Africa.
“These are where the challenges begin,” said Dominique Trinquand, a French former general who advised Mr Macron on his presidential campaign. “Something like Libya . . . There are no easy answers.”
Mr Macron’s jolt back to reality were underlined over the weekend as opinion polls showed the second-biggest decline in popularity for a French president so soon after an election.
His approval ratings fell 10 percentage points to 54 per cent this month, according to pollster Ifop, making him less popular overall than his two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicholas Sarkozy, at this stage in their terms.
“This is a huge drop in popularity,” said Jérôme Fourquet, head of Ifop. “This is rare to see so early on in the presidency.”
Mr Macron faced his first big political crisis last week after a dispute over military budget cuts led to the resignation of General Pierre de Villiers, France’s top military commander.
Critics, particularly those on the right, said that affair was mishandled by Mr Macron, who gave the general a dressing-down in a public speech. Retired General Vincent Desportes accused Mr Macron of “juvenile authoritarianism”.
At the same time, Mr Macron’s promised spending cuts are starting to bite. The president needs to find €60bn of public spending savings over five years to stay within the EU’s deficit limit, which is 3 per cent of economic output.
Many of those who took part in the Ifop poll criticised not only the cuts but the “authoritarian style” Mr Macron has developed since taking power in May. For example, he plans to push through changes to labour laws this year by decree, avoiding long momentum-sapping debate in parliament.
“Macron is going fast, very fast,” said Philippe Defarges, adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs. “But trying to get anywhere fast is a risk — you can end up falling down hard.”
Government ministers say privately that they are not overly worried by short-term popularity, focusing instead on trying to make domestic and foreign reforms as fast as possible to achieve results well before the next election in 2022.
But what is clear, says Mr Fourquet, is that after the wave of support for Mr Macron at home and internationally since his victory in May, the hard grind is truly beginning. “The tough decisions are now being taken,” he says.
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