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What France’s presidential race could mean for the GCC

Only a couple of weeks ago, the French presidential elections scheduled for this April seemed destined to disrupt ties between France and most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. This would be an inevitable assumption given the Middle East and world views of the two candidates likeliest to make it to the final round: Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and the far-right leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.

But since then, the ongoing controversy surrounding Fillon’s employment of his wife as an assistant for at least 15 years has turned the election upside down. The latest polls suggest that Fillon, until recently the frontrunner and center-right candidate who surprisingly defeated Nicolas Sarkozy and Allain Juppe in the Republican primaries, is likely to miss the final round.

The centrist independent and former minister of economy, industry and digital data, Emmanuel Macron, now leads in the polls, and only a surprising upset will prevent him from beating Le Pen in the final round. 

In a time of great uncertainty and political extremism, Macron’s rational and moderate outlook would likely mean a constructive French policy toward the Middle East.

Manuel Almeida

Fillon, a known admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is an advocate of social conservatism and free markets. Le Pen’s economic outlook, on the other hand, is highly protectionist, anti-globalization and emphasizes the benefits of the welfare state. A victory for her — an unlikely but not impossible scenario — could mean France’s withdrawal from the euro zone and a major crisis for the EU.

It is in foreign policy that Fillon’s views are more worrying from the GCC’s perspective. There is plenty of overlap between him and Le Pen in this regard. Both have tapped into the larger trends of nationalism and populism sweeping through Europe and the US.

Due to Europe’s migrant crisis and the various terrorist attacks suffered by France in the last few years, their foreign policy views and discussions on the Middle East and Islam have been dominated by domestic security concerns and cultural identity issues.

Both Fillon and Le Pen fail to appreciate the complexity of the war in Syria, ignore the genocide perpetrated by the regime, and see President Bashar Assad as a natural ally for Christian France and a bulwark against Sunni terrorist groups. Fillon has been critical of the anti-Assad posture of current President Francois Hollande and his alignment with the US on the matter.

Like Le Pen, an admirer of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, Fillon supports the Syria-Russia-Iran tripartite military effort to defeat what he calls “Islamic totalitarianism.” “Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism” (“Vaincre Le Totalitarisme Islamique”) is the title of Fillon’s latest book published last year, where he explains how Sunni Islamists — he sees the huge variety of Islamist groups as one and the same — seek global hegemony.

Yet Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, support for terrorist groups and Shiite armed militias across the region is not a cause for concern for either candidate. Nor is Iranian and Russian involvement in mass atrocities in Syria. Following the removal of sanctions after the nuclear deal, Iran became France’s top oil supplier and a much-coveted market for major French companies such as Peugeot and Total.

The sudden shift in the electoral race following the controversy surrounding Fillon’s employment of his wife, and Macron’s increasing chances as a result, is good news for the GCC states, even if by default.

To be able to appeal to voters outside his base, Macron’s independent bid is a broad mixture of pro-business economic reforms and the extension of the welfare state. Not much is known about his foreign policy views beyond the fact that he shuns strong nationalist tendencies, is pro-Europe and pro-globalization.

During a short visit to Lebanon this year, the former philosophy student, investment banker and minister said making Assad’s removal a priority over everything else was a mistake. Fighting Daesh, in Macron’s view, should be the priority, but he disagrees with those such as Fillon and Le Pen who argue for normalizing ties with Assad.

In a time of great uncertainty and political extremism, Macron’s rational and moderate outlook would likely mean a constructive French policy toward the Middle East. It would also mean that the good ties between the GCC states and France, which Hollande and his predecessor Sarkozy greatly invested in, would be preserved.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.