France seeks a more active Middle East role
France has colonial ties with a quarter of the Arab world, but the long shadow of violent wars of independence and a focus on West Africa have meant that it always held back from taking a lead role in the region. However, in a departure from his predecessors, President Emmanuel Macron has shown a readiness to get more involved. Just last week, three Arab leaders — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — walked through the gates of the Elysees Palace.
A perceived US withdrawal from the region is the most significant factor behind France’s readiness to intervene. President Donald Trump’s State Department cuts and the fact that US ambassadors have yet to be appointed to six regional countries illustrate the White House’s lack of resolve with its traditional area of influence. Russia’s tactical undermining of Western influence in the region is a direct result of the US scaling back, while it seems France has also recognized an opportunity to impose itself on the region with the added value of retaining its big power status.
The Trump administration’s primary focus on the region seems to be Israel, containing Iran and demolishing Daesh. Though it has expressed support for other Arab allies, the absence of ambassadors to enforce relationships creates challenges. In a part of the world where personal ties are paramount and protocol of critical importance, the US lacks the tools and indeed the appetite to delve into the region’s fraught politics.
France has instead capitalized on its standing in the Arab world, as being historically supportive of the Palestinian cause, against the US invasion of Iraq, and having been vocal in its opposition to the Assad regime. Whereas Trump has put Middle East policy in the hands of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, President Macron has been keen to bring in regional expertise. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is a former Minister of Defense with extensive relationships in the Arab world, and a cadre of former French ambassadors to the region are key appointees.
France’s relationship with the Middle East is not new and its renewed interest in the region in some respects stems from a desire to leverage its historical ties. Shortly after becoming president, Macron chose Morocco as the destination of his first state visit. Politely breaking bread with the king during the month of Ramadan, the president displayed a willingness to make good on his campaign promises to improve France’s relations with the Muslim world.
The Syrian case is an opportunity for France to involve itself in a conflict where other great powers have shown reluctance.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Having urged the UN to take a hard line against human trafficking in Libya, actively seeking a smooth transition of power in Algeria, and mediating during the Gulf crisis, the president has shown that France will be more actively involved in regional affairs. Helene Pichon, a former French diplomat and director of institutional relations at French think tank CEPS, discussed this issue from Paris. She considered the main driver behind French foreign policy to be “the President, who really wants to make a difference. France is back in the region. His growing ties with Arab leaders are a typical example of his desire to be a bridge of understanding and collaboration between nations.”
Last Saturday, France, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, launched over 100 missiles targeting locations in Syria linked with the regime’s chemical weapons program. In a move that Macron said was intended to “save the honor of the international community,” the rare military action has allowed the president to show French leadership on the international stage. It has allowed France to capitalize on its imperial history and to stabilize a part of the world where it has important relationships. The Syrian case is an opportunity for France to involve itself in a conflict where other great powers have shown reluctance. With the UK and Germany distracted with domestic affairs, this is a moment for France to show leadership in Europe, especially in the context of Brexit, which will leave France as the EU’s only nuclear power.
With an economy that has struggled to grow in recent years, building French relationships in the Arab world will also have a positive impact on the Republic’s finances. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two of France’s largest export markets for defense equipment, while Macron has mentioned the possibility of a state visit to Iran later in the year and has spoken admirably of the French companies that have sought to build bridges in that market.
France has to be seen to be taking a role in the Middle East to show a strong front to its allies in the region who, directly or indirectly, feel the effects of the Syrian conflict. France maintains a military base in Lebanon and has close relations with its leadership. As the third largest weapons supplier in the world, France has increased arms exports by 27 percent in the last five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks this data. The vast majority of this growth has been through its trade partners in the Arab world, underlying the region’s importance to France.
Whether as diplomatic mediator, economic partner or indeed UN Security Council ally, France has and will continue to pursue a more active policy in a region that has been torn apart by foreign intervention. It is therefore imperative that its role be a positive one, as several recent events have shown how isolated incidents have quickly escalated.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).