How France and Italy’s Rivalry Is Hurting Libya

And How the Palermo Conference Can Help

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (left) speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels, June 2018. Yves Herman / Reuters

Since the 2011 revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libyans have often blamed outside actors for their continuing woes. Too frequently, this grievance has been overstated and used as an excuse to minimize the hard compromises that Libyans themselves need to undertake to achieve a durable peace. Over the last year, however, both France and Italy have played a more intrusive role in Libyan politics, undermining rather than supporting the UN-led peace initiative. Italy’s new populist government has introduced anti-immigration measures that threaten to keep hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded in Libya, with potentially disastrous results. At the same time, the French-Italian rivalry over migration, the future of Europe, and the question of whether Paris or Rome should be the leading international voice on Libyan affairs is compounding Libya’s already serious problems.

Italy is now organizing an international conference on Libya set for November 12–13. Rome has an opportunity to help the UN advance several crucial elements of its peace efforts, including organizing Libyan national elections and reaching a lasting security arrangement. Conversely, if the Italian government uses its conference to sideline UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salamé, fight publicly with the French, and trumpet its policies on migration, it will further confuse Libya’s chaotic politics.


Libya has long been important to Italy. A former Italian colony, it is now both a major transit country for African migration to Europe and a major supplier of Italy’s oil and natural gas. Rome’s interest in the country has only grown since 2014–15, when hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them from other parts of Africa, began arriving in Libya to attempt the crossing into Europe.

Italy’s current government is a populist coalition between the left-wing Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing League.Since taking office in June, the government, led by the anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has made reducing migration its top priority. Although arrivals were already falling, Salvini introduced a new policy—rejecting all migrant boats, including

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