France is urging the Libyan opposition to sit down and negotiate with Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country's defense minister said yesterday in Paris. Gérard Longuet said it was time to "get round the table" and "speak to each other."
He added, "The position of the [Transitional National Council] TNC is very far from other positions."
You might recall France was the first country to recognize the TNC. And it pushed its NATO allies into initiating the military campaign against Qaddafi. It even fired the first shots against Qaddafi's regime. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world had to prevent Qaddafi's "murderous madness" against civilians.
"This is a huge transformation," said Melissa Bell of France 24. "From the beginning it was always a question of Qaddafi leaving."
France sparked angry responses from Russian and African leaders when it parachuted weapons to Libyan rebels. Last week, Longuet said France would no longer arm the opposition.
So, what changed? Why is France shifting away from its gung-ho anti-Qaddafi position from earlier this spring?
For starters, the war has dragged on far longer than most people anticipated it would, and France seems to be growing impatient.
There is also frustration with the rebels, who have shown little desire to enter negotiations to end the conflict.
According to the Daily Telegraph, a senior Western diplomat said France was "sending a message" to the rebels that the clock is ticking to bring the conflict to an end. NATO's mandate in Libya is due to expire at the end of September.
"There is general recognition among Western diplomats that the structure of the state existing in the western part of the country should not be completely disregarded in the event of a quick collapse of the Qaddafi regime," the source added.
Observers have noted the campaign is not going as well as it could. George Robertson, the former British defense secretary and former NATO secretary-general told Foreign Policy that European countries lack the military capacity to bring the operation to a close.
"In Libya, the Americans did what I always suggested they might do -- which is to say, 'It's your fight; please take the lead. You're big enough; you're brave enough; you're strong enough. You do it,'" Robertson said.
As in Washington, the Libya war is taking a political toll on the administration in Paris.
Tomorrow, the French Parliament will vote whether to continue supplying the Libya mission. France 24 reports that the measure is likely to win approval but, coming at a time when progress seems to have stalled, it raises tricky questions for the government.
And campaign season has begun in France -- with presidential elections set for early next year, Libya could potentially hurt Sarkozy's chances. The military mission is costing France €1 million a day, according to France 24.
All that said, it isn't entirely clear what France's position is exactly.
After Longuet's statement, French Foreign Secretary Alain Juppé backtracked a bit, saying, "The question is not to know whether he must leave, but when and how."
Today, after Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, told an Algerian paper that Sarkozy met with an envoy of his father to discuss political solutions, Paris quickly denied the story.
"There are no direct negotiations between France and the Qaddafi regime, but we pass messages through the rebel council [TNC] and our allies," a spokesman said.
Ironically, Washington finds itself in a bit of a role reversal with Paris. Responding to the defense minister's comments, a State Department spokesperson said, "The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power."
They'll have a lot to talk about when the United States, France, and other allies meet in Istanbul on Friday to discuss progress.
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