23 March 2011
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


Only a few months after signing treaties designed to further bilateral cooperation in defence and security, the UK and France have acted as a driving force in the foreign intervention in Libya.

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were instrumental in securing Security Council approval of UN Resolution 1973 to take all necessary measures to protect civilian populated areas from attack while excluding occupation.

The two countries have proved that they are the only two European powers able to show leadership in defence and security. Germany, at times considered the other essential partner in this field, chose to abstain from the UN vote and to not take part in the implementation of the resolution.

Intervening for the wrong reasons?

The role of France and the UK in implementing the no-fly zone and the subsequent air strikes in Libya stems from the moral urgency to stop Colonel Gaddafi from attacking his own citizens. The form it took was nonetheless shaped by a broader domestic and international context.

Domestic politics has been a key driver in both France and the UK. In Paris, President Sarkozy proved eager to make up for years of support to the Gaddafi regime, notably marked by a controversial official visit at the Elysée in 2007, when arms deals were discussed. In addition, the Libyan crisis is an opportunity for the French president to shift the debate away from a murky political climate in France ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. After recent political scandals and government reshuffles, the majority party suffered in the first round of local elections recently, while President Sarkozy's popularity is at a record low.

The UK is still coming to terms with the financial implications of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. With suggestions that the UK's military might has been damaged by the defence budget cuts, Downing Street has been keen to prove via the Libyan crisis that the UK can still have global influence in the world.

Re-emerging splits?

The situation on the ground in Libya is proving very difficult, as warned by military officials in Paris and London prior to the no-fly zone. Additionally, operational struggle has created tensions at a diplomatic level. Early this week, France and the UK clashed on the appropriate command structure to take over from the United States. While France called for a Franco-British command, the UK indicated that NATO would be more appropriate.

During what was described by some participants as an 'emotional' and 'truly awful' meeting between NATO Ambassadors in Brussels, traditional divergences re-emerged as France demonstrated characteristic willingness to distinguish itself from the rest of the Alliance by opting for a political move rather than an operational one.