Some of the classic races in international law involve intervention and recognition during civil wars. This goes back to the Alabama Claims arbitration between the United States and Great Britain that arose because British shipyards built the raider Alabama for the Confederates, the southern secessionists who were defeated by the Union forces,  during the American Civil War. Since then, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War and other civil wars have created nettlesome legal situations.

The decision by France to recognize the insurgent government in Benghazi. Libya as the legitimate government and exchange ambassadors with it is legally shaky, especially given Muammar Qaddafi's recent military successes. The German reaction as expressed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Werner Hoyer, was probably more on the mark. "I believe that the situation is still very confused, in order to decide how one should proceed," he told the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

The decision to recognize the insurgents was therefore based on politics rather than legality, however odious the Qaddafi regime may be. The French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur speculated on what motivated Nicolas Sarkozy to decide on the measure and came up with the following.

  • After France was caught flat-footed in Tunisia and to a lesser extent in Egypt, French diplomacy had to show that it was taking an initiative on the Arab Revolution.
  • The French president wanted people to forget the humiliating reception that he had granted in December 2007, shortly after assuming the presidency, to the Libyan Colonel that made a mockery of his human rights pledges during the election campaign of that very same year.
  • He wanted to show public opinion that he was cognizant of the risks of illegal immigration coming from Africa.
  • Amongst the countries abutting the Mediterranean, France was the only country with the military and diplomatic capabilities to act. Italy is compromised by its colonial past in Libya and the intimate relations between Silvio Berlusconi and Qaddafi.
  • France imports 6.5% of its petroleum from Libya.
  • Libya is bounded by 4 French-speaking countries where France has a major interest: Algeria, Tunisia, Niger and Chad.
  • France wanted to preempt the United States and Great Britain in case the latter 2 countries sought to supplant Italy as Libya's major partner.

All or some of these reasons may be true. It would be worth speculating on another reason. The French president is convinced that Qaddafi is going down. The support by 6 Gulf state countries for a no-fly zone may be the start of the international umbrella that would permit European, rather than American, intervention in Libya.

France has been lobbying China and Russia to let a resolution backing such intervention get through the U.N. Security Council without their exercising a veto. Perhaps this is the reason that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has been so insistent on U.N. backing. He may know that it is on its way.

French recognition may be premature, but unlike the aftermath of the American Civil War, Qaddafi will not be able to sue France in the World Court.