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A new, unpredictable era in GCC-French relations?

On April 23, the French will vote in the first round of presidential elections. Western capitals will tune in anxiously, looking for clues on whether the run-off on May 7 could deliver another major surprise. But for Arab Gulf states, there are no alarm bells ringing yet over the potential outcome. If recent history is anything to go by, the elections that over the last year sent shockwaves throughout the West have so far meant good news for them.

Last June, Brexiteers won the referendum in the UK, paving the way for a government of Prime Minister Theresa May keen to deepen relations with Gulf partners. A few months later came Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US.

Unpredictable as the president and his administration might be, some of the new policies — such as a far tougher line on Iran — represent a significant departure from the era of his predecessor Barack Obama, which is seen as positive by most Arab Gulf governments. Yet the French presidential race could be a real upset, not only for the future of Europe but for the Gulf states’ interests and relations with France.

After Brexit and the US elections, there is widespread skepticism about polls, but that does not mean they should be disregarded. The latest opinion polls put Emmanuel Macron — the centrist independent and former minister of economy, industry and digital data — just one percentage point behind the far-right leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, who gathers 23.5 percent of voting intentions for the first round.

Behind with 19 percentage comes the former Republican Prime Minister Francois Fillon, still struggling to recover from the controversy surrounding the employment of his wife as an assistant for years. Adding to what has been the most eventful French presidential race in recent memory, the latest surprise has been the rise of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, now just half a percentage point behind Fillon.

In case of victory, the former Trotskyist promises to impose a 100 percent top rate of income tax, a reduction of working hours and a massive spending increase, including an expansion of France’s unsustainable welfare programs. His chances of making it to the run-off are still relatively slim, although if he reaches the final round he would probably defeat Le Pen.

Among the four leading candidates, a victory for Macron would be by far the best outcome for the Gulf states. His specific foreign policy views are still largely unknown, but his pragmatism and pro-European and -globalization stances would result in a constructive and responsible Middle East policy.

Political and economic ties between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and France, which President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy greatly invested in, would be preserved.

A victory for Emmanuel Macron would be the best outcome for the Gulf states. His specific foreign policy views are still largely unknown, but his pragmatism and pro-European and -globalization stances would result in a constructive and responsible Middle East policy.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

If he makes it to the run-off, Macron will be favorite to beat Le Pen. But there are at least three trends that could work against Macron: Potential high levels of abstention, the high number of undecided voters, and growing disillusionment with the establishment. His independent bid may well be genuine, but with a career in politics and banking, Macron hardly counts as anti-establishment. Fillon calls him Emmanuel Hollande.

A surprising comeback by Fillon would raise big question marks on what his presidency would mean for France’s ties with the Arab Gulf states. On the economic front, the pro-business reforms he would certainly try to implement could generate opportunities for investment for Gulf governments and the private sector.

Many of his foreign policy views, however, are worryingly similar to Le Pen’s, including an admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and positive views on Syrian President Bashar Assad. And not all of it is explained by Fillon’s need to tap into the National Front’s potential voters.

A Le Pen presidency would be the worst outcome for the Arab Gulf states. It would likely mean internal chaos and paralysis, and a French government withdrawn — both willingly and by default — from key matters in the Middle East, following Russia’s lead in the region.

Among Le Pen’s known foreign policy positions are the endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a view of Assad as an ally of Christian France against Sunni terrorist groups (in her view, all the Syrian opposition), and the intention to pull France out of NATO. The claim that she has truly reformed the National Front to make it electable should be faced with skepticism. The racist, xenophobic and fascist basis of the party remains in place.

The economic prospects for France in case of a Le Pen presidency are equally worrying. Her economic protectionism and antagonism toward the European project would only be attenuated by the lack of parliamentary backing to call a referendum on EU membership. Even more mainstream candidates such as Macron and Fillon are unlikely to get a majority in June’s legislative elections.

In case of a major surprise, there is at least hope that the pragmatism needed to govern, and the checks and balances of the French political system, will curb the radicalism of the candidates on the far ends of the political spectrum. That would still be of little comfort for Arab Gulf governments, which would be entering a new era in their relations with France.

• 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 Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.