Rebuilding Libya could be worth at least US$200 billion over 10 years, but France's role in ousting Muammar Gaddafi will not be enough to seal deals, the chief of France's overseas business federation said on Wednesday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spearheaded military intervention in the OPEC producer and France's top firms will now be eager to capitalise on the positive sentiment towards Paris among Libya's new leaders.
"It's interesting to see that France is benefiting from a favourable environment after what the President did, however let's be clear the market is not there to be taken but to be won," said Thierry Courtaigne, director general of Medef International, which represents the interests of France's top firms overseas.
Some 400 top executives from companies such as oil major Total , energy firm GDF Suez and carmaker Peugeot , descended on Medef's Paris headquarters on Tuesday, eager for news on the situation in Libya and the interim government's priorities.
The appetite was huge in comparison to during the Gaddafi era when just under 50 firms operated in the north African state, making France only its sixth-largest supplier, behind the likes of Italy, Germany, China and Turkey.
"There will be stiff competition ... Italian, American, English, so the French package has to be perfectly targeted, prepared and competitive," Courtaigne said.
"The total cost of reconstruction estimated by officials over 10 years is $200 billion, but it could be more. It will depend on what sort of country the Libyans want to build."
Tuesday's conference -- entitled the National Transitional Council and its Projects -- was a first step in the reconstruction process. Officials such as Trade Minister Pierre Lellouche and a representative of the Libyan temporary mechanism fund that channels money unfrozen from the United Nations, all outlined their views and perspectives for projects in a country with Africa's largest oil reserves.
"Libya is a very rich country with a relatively poor population because the money was used for other things than to supply and develop the country in a sizeable way like we've seen with the Gulf Arab countries," Courtaigne said.
For him, the immediate priority is for companies to gather into sectoral groups and establish exactly what the new rules of the game are in Libya -- from who is making the decisions and what processes are involved, to practical issues such as visa requirements and the legality of contracts in Arabic.
The French government and Medef at some point plan to send a delegation of key company officials and ministers into Libya. But companies are already competing with each other to get a first foot in the door. The chief executive of Italian energy giant ENI has already been to Benghazi to try and secure his company's interests, while a French delegation of firms met the interim council during June and July.
"There's no point going when people are not ready, but we can't go in six months when everybody has already been there," Courtaigne said.
"The government's role is to create a framework in Libya and then companies will follow, but there will be companies that will go without waiting for the ministers," he said, adding that the Franco-Libyan Chamber of Commerce was planning to go again during September.
Some French firms are already doing business with Libya's new rulers. Grain firm Soufflet has signed contracts to supply wheat worth about $22 million and Courtaigne said others like telecommunications provider Alcatel-Lucent and pharmaceuticals firm Sanofi were now working in Libya.
"I know that Alcatel has dashed in and Sanofi has supplied medicines, but I can't tell you whether these are good will offers for the future or contracts."