France Stages a Comeback in the Middle East

7 MINS READJan 5, 2018 | 21:53 GMT
Qatari officials greet French President Emmanuel Macron (R) on his recent visit to Doha in December 2017.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with Qatari officials during a meeting in Doha on December 7, 2017.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron will continue his efforts to promote order and stability throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as part of a bid to renew France's influence in the region.
  • Regional proxy battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, will undermine Macron's efforts.
  • Nevertheless, because France has a lower profile in the Middle East relative to other foreign powers, such as the United States, it will have more leeway to negotiate the disputes. 

France has been involved in the Middle East in one way or another for centuries, starting with the Crusades. The modern phase of its activities in the region began just after World War II, as France's collapsing empire gave way during the Cold War to a web of alliances in the Arab world and beyond. France prioritized relationships in its former colonies, such as Tunisia, to protect its sphere of influence from both the global threat of Communism and from what it saw as an Anglo-American challenge to its own independent foreign policy. After its defeat in Algeria in 1962, the country took a back seat to the United States and United Kingdom's leadership in the Middle East. But today France is setting the stage for a comeback in the region. Under the guidance of French President Emmanuel Macron — just over halfway through his first year in office — France is making a renewed bid for order and influence in the region.

Solving Problems

France has worked recently to stabilize states across the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya, for example, France has attempted to rebuild the shattered country over the past year. Macron's administration invited Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter to take part in a conference held in Paris in July to resolve the enduring conflict in Libya, lending the military leader and strongman political legitimacy. The talks led to a promise of future elections aimed at unifying Hifter's faction with Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord. Though the vote has yet to take place, and though plenty of bumps remain on the road ahead, the agreement represents an achievement for Macron in his attempt to stabilize the war-torn North African country.

The French president demonstrated his diplomatic prowess a few months later in October, when the United States decertified the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Macron warned Washington against further action toward Tehran, while also echoing some of the U.S. administration's concerns about Iran's ballistic missile program. Despite its consternation, though, France avoided ramping up the confrontation between the United States and the Islamic republic and instead acknowledged each side's grievances in a bid to encourage both parties toward a diplomatic solution.

(Stratfor 2018)

Then in November, France once again played the mediator in a regional conflict, this time through shuttle diplomacy. After Lebanese President Saad al-Hariri resigned his office while visiting Saudi Arabia, the government he left behind seemed on the verge of paralysis. Al-Hariri cited threats to his life from Iranian proxies as the reason for his sudden departure, but in reality, the Saudi government had pushed him to step down as punishment for his pragmatic stance toward Islamist paramilitary group Hezbollah. With that in mind, Macron traveled to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to pressure Emirati and Saudi officials to let the former president return to Beirut. They relented, al-Hariri withdrew his resignation and resumed his post, and the Lebanese government, such as it is, carried on.

Forging Deeper Ties

Elsewhere in the region, Paris focused on shoring up its relationship with various states. In December, for instance, Macron visited Algeria, where he emphasized the need for the country and his own to build a new future. France, once Algeria's largest trade partner, has ceded that title to China in recent years, a loss it wants to remedy. Macron's largely symbolic trip was part of an effort to improve relations between France and its former colony in hopes of forging deeper, more substantive ties. (It was also meant to allay concerns in Algeria about France's budding relationship with rival Morocco, where Macron paid a historic visit earlier in 2017.) To that end, the French president laid a wreath at a monument to those killed in the Algerian War and promised that his country would return its grisly trophies from the conflict — human skulls previously on display at the Musee de l'Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris. The act of atonement was a boost for the Algerian government, which still relies on its revolutionary credentials for legitimacy. The visit also gave Macron an opportunity to call on Algerians to stay at home to strengthen their own country, rather than setting off for French shores.

As relations between Germany and Turkey cooled last year, Paris made sure to keep the lines of communication with Ankara open, in part to preserve the European Union's critical migrant deal with Turkey. Macron reassured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his country was not the target of a conspiracy by the European Union, while joining him in condemning the U.S. administration's decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His efforts seem to have paid off: The migrant deal survived, and EU-Turkish relations, though strained, limped into the new year without any more major rifts.

In addition, Macron hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris following U.S. President Donald Trump's Jerusalem announcement, offering the beleaguered leader solace and support. Abbas, in turn, called on France to assume a new leadership role in the peace process after declaring that the United States could no longer participate in it. The suggestion has kept the peace process alive, albeit stalled, in the wake of the U.S. administration's policy change.

Earlier in December, the French president visited Qatar, despite the Saudi-led blockade against the tiny Gulf state. While in Doha, Macron signed deals worth a total of 12 billion euros — including an agreement to sell arms to Qatar — and backed Kuwait's proposal for mediation to end the monthslong diplomatic feud in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Macron's trip reinforced not only France's interests in the country but also its commitment to bringing order to the region and beyond. Shortly after the visit, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates threw their weight behind the cause of stability by offering more than $100 million to help finance France's counterterrorism campaign with the Group of Five Sahel Force in West Africa.  

The Limits of Stability

Its recent activities in the Middle East and North Africa notwithstanding, France probably will struggle to achieve the stability it's after. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to fuel proxy conflicts in the states that lie between them, regardless of Macron's agenda. Lebanon is a prime target for this strategy because both Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran's ally in the country, Hezbollah, as a threat. A new war, or another Saudi-engineered political crisis, could reverse France's gains there. Paris's efforts in Israel, likewise, could easily dissolve in conflict, especially if its burgeoning partnership with the Palestinian Authority yields no progress toward peace. Palestinians may simply upend their government in a new intifada, or they could revolt against Abbas's party, Fatah, and put rival Palestinian party Hamas in power instead. Such a resolution would doom the peace process once and for all and make another war between the Israelis and Palestinians inevitable.

Libya, too, poses a challenge, not least of all because of the local factions' propensity for violence to resolve political disputes. Even if the elections go forward as agreed — hardly a given — politicians with private armies could void the results as they see fit. Add to these conflicts the enduring civil war in Syria and the endless proxy battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and much of the region's instability will be beyond France's ability to resolve. At the same time, however, its low profile in the Middle East relative to foreign powers such as the United States and United Kingdom will give it more leeway to negotiate the various regional disputes.

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