France, you may recall, urged a reluctant U.S. to intervene military in Libya and was the first country to officially recognize the Libyan rebels and provide the opposition with direct military aid--measures the U.S. has cautiously sidestepped. So it was surprising on Sunday when French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said France was prepared to halt the bombing if the Libyan rebels and Muammar Qaddafi's loyalists agreed to lay down arms and negotiate, because there was "no solution with force." When asked if talks could take place without Qaddafi relinquishing power, as the opposition demands, Longuet added, "He will be in another room in his palace with another title." Completing the about face, the U.S. State Department responded by reaffirming its commitment to NATO's military mission in Libya and declaring that while the political transition in Libya is ultimately in the hands of the Libyan people, "we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power."
France's pivot to diplomacy was only underlined this morning when Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, was quoted in the Algerian newspaper El Khabar as saying that the Qaddafi regime was negotiating with France and not the rebels. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero has denied any direct negotiations with Libyan officials but acknowledged that "we pass messages through the rebel council (TNC) and our allies." France is also distancing itself a bit from Longuet's statements yesterday. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe clarified that NATO still needed to "keep up the military pressure" on Qaddafi and Valero noted that "any political solution must begin with Qaddafi's withdrawal from power and abandonment of any political role." Juppe added, however, that France is simultaneously working to broker a political solution based on a genuine ceasefire and left open the possibility that Qaddafi could cede power but remain in Libya.