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At Libya summit in Paris, a bid for new relationship with North Africa

A Libya summit convening this evening will target the National Transitional Council's governing and financial needs. French and British hosts are keen to avoid any echoes of past European colonialism.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2011

Crates of bank notes are guarded upon arrival at an airport in Benghazi August 31. Britain's Royal Air Force on Wednesday flew a special mission to Libya -- freshly printed bank notes, worth more than $1.5 billion, which will be used to help its new rulers pay public workers and banks to replenish cash machines.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

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Paris

Today’s conference on Libya, hosted in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, introduces Libyan rebel leaders to an international gathering in an effort to establish their legitimacy and to release frozen Libyan assets abroad.

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It may more largely signal a “new relationship” between Europe and North Africa, with French diplomats stressing an emphasis on “listening” and trying to eclipse the post-colonial legacy of European states that long teamed up with Arab autocrats toppled during the Arab Spring.

In practical terms, the meeting in Paris this evening is all about “transition” – especially at a sensitive moment when the rebel effort could still go badly or fail, French diplomats say. The main issue: How can a country ruled for 42 years by an autocrat transform itself into a democracy in a stable fashion?

Yet after six months of what often seemed an inconclusive war, it is also a moment of quiet celebration in Paris and London after a European summer of debt crisis, riots, and uncertainty.

The gathering follows a March 19 Paris conference that agreed to launch airstrikes to save rebels in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, and it takes place with fighting still underway and Muammar Qaddafi still at large.

Paris hosts refashioned the event as “Friends of Libya” to include nations like Russia, China, and Germany that did not participate in the air campaign or were critical of it.

National Transitional Council (NTC) members Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are expected to talk about a road map to democracy with 60 delegations, 13 heads of state, UN chief Ban Ki-moon, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Avoiding the chaos of postwar Iraq in 2004 is a strong undercurrent here. Indeed, the NATO-led Libya venture, unlike the Iraq war, is seen in Paris as a correct example of “humanitarian intervention” – sanctioned by the UN Security Council, backed by a genuine uprising, and launched to save lives.

A rich oil country

Not lost on anyone is that Libya is not impoverished, but a rich oil country with a small population. Libyan bank foreign reserves prior to the war are estimated at $107 billion; gold reserves now top $9 billion. Libyan sovereign wealth is $70 billion. Qaddafi family holdings range from at least $50 billion to possibly $180 billion. Libya’s population is 6.4 million.

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