By Eleanor Beevor
For decades, the legacy of General Charles de Gaulle in the Middle East was a French foreign policy which remained stubbornly independent from other global powers.
France found itself favour among an eclectic set of Arab leaders over the 20th century, thanks to Paris’ willingness to defend their interests against European and American influences. From De Gaulle’s de-facto defence of Palestine by embargoing the sale of French arms to Israel, to Jacques Chirac’s attempts to stall the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, France enjoyed the fruits of comparative favour for a long time.
A stagnant policy
But according to some analysts, France’s Middle East policy after the start of the War on Terror stagnated. According to Manuel Lafont Rapnouil of the European Council on Foreign Relations, French Middle Eastern policy in the recent past can be characterised as one of “reassurance”.
Its strategy rested on assuring Arab leaders that France would help to maintain the status quo, on the assumption that that would gift them a “special relationship”. That hasn’t proven quite the case. France has a long way to go before it meets its trading ambitions in the Middle East. It has yet to see the kind of trusted relationships with Arab states that would allow it to effectively advance its own interests, as well as broader concerns about human rights and democratisation. According to Rapnouil, France has traded its chance to create an influential strategy for stability. However, it has largely failed to win friends and influence people in doing so.
Still, Rapnouil suggested that President Emmanuel Macron is gradually wisening up to the failures of this approach. And indeed, Macron’s most recent actions in the Middle East have been undeniably assertive. Whilst it was Donald Trump who most vocally promised to bring hell to Assad after the Douma chemical attack, it was Macron who claimed to strategize the military response. He said in an interview the day after the airstrikes that it was he who had persuaded Trump to keep his troops in Syria, and limit the attack to chemical weapons sites, rather than to push for regime change. This may have been aimed to reassure a war-averse French public - to shore up an image of strength, but not recklessness.
Macron’s new approach
But does this signal a whole new approach to the Middle East for Macron - one ready to forge change rather than just trying to stabilise present circumstances? Talking of “preserving stability” in Syria, and by extension implying that Assad represents stability despite having caused the war, can only provoke a hollow laugh. This is not to say that militarily forcing regime change is wise – it is very hard to see either a diplomatic or a military solution ending well at this stage. But either way, Macron has made clear that if Assad is to go, it won’t be by French intervention, and that last week’s strikes were merely about preventing the use of chemical weapons. He has previously stated that Assad’s removal is not a pre-condition for a settlement as far as France is concerned, and that ISIS remains the key enemy.
Hand off on Syria, Hands on to Saudi Arabia
Thus on Syria he has yet to diverge from the hands-off position largely maintained by the west. However, he may play a more formative role on a different path, which is that of mitigating the ambitious Saudi Crown Prince’s more controversial moves.
The young Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, has made waves across the Middle East, and friends and enemies in the process. His reformist positions on aspects of Saudi politics and his pro-western stance have seen him hailed in Britain and America as a new generation of Saudi leadership. In London and Washington there is a sense of relief – no longer do they have to be embarrassed about their reliance on Riyadh, for MBS is to be their agent of change.
However, the Prince’s uncompromising hostility towards Iran is evident, as is his apparent conviction that when undermining Iranian influence, the ends always justify the means.
For the Trump administration, which shares a hawkish stance towards Tehran, this is no problem. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May is desperately seeking allies now that bridges with the EU have been burned, and she dare not alienate Washington. Thus she has so far either echoed Trump’s lead in the Middle East, or kept quiet. MBS was given little short of a hero’s welcome by the government when he visited the UK in March, and so it seems unlikely that London will attempt to rein in the Prince’s plans.
Here, France has the chance to carve out an influential niche for itself, as a restraint on MBS’s no-holds-barred quest to reshape the Middle East. Macron was first thrust into this position in November last year, during the extraordinary resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from conditions of quasi-detention in Saudi Arabia.
Hariri, who thought he was going to Riyadh for an official visit, was reportedly forced to read a prepared resignation speech that was broadcast to Lebanon. The move was thought to be a Saudi attempt to force an early death on Hariri’s parliamentary coalition, which, MBS believed, had come to allow Iranian proxy Hezbollah too much political clout.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives at Beirut International Airport on November 21 /AFP
The move backfired. The Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected the resignation as a fabrication, and the Lebanese didn’t buy its authenticity either. But only after Macron unexpectedly flew into Riyadh for talks was Hariri allowed to go free, after which he spent three days recovering at the French Presidential residence.
If rumours are to be believed, MBS attempted to use the visit to intimidate Macron over France’s support of the Iran nuclear deal. According to Reuters, Prince Mohammed threatened to “curb relations with France” if they did not cease dialogue with Iran. Macron apparently replied tersely that France was a nuclear power itself and free to do as it liked.
Despite this tension a few months ago, neither France nor Saudi Arabia are prepared to sever their relationship. MBS went on a state visit to Paris in mid-April, and both leaders made clear that their countries had a lot to gain from each other.
Though France did not secure as many large-scale business contracts as they would have liked, they still walked away with $18 billion worth of new deals. Meanwhile, the Prince has apparently decided that an injection of French culture is what Saudi soft power needs. He promises to establish opera houses and concert halls under French direction, and to encourage Saudi participation in the Cannes Film Festival.
On Iran, however, Macron appears not to have been swayed. He agreed with the Prince on the need to curb Iranian “expansionism”. However, he said that the two countries must agree to disagree on the nuclear deal.
In regard to Yemen, Macron pledged to host a “humanitarian conference”, and said that though France respected Saudi’s right to security from Houthi attacks, this did not excuse violations of the laws of war. He stated: “We are very attached to respect for international humanitarian law and we will continue to be vigilant about this”.
Newly assertive though Macron may appear in the Middle East, this does not actually represent a significant departure from France’s strategy of stabilizing and containing tensions. Rather, Macron appears to be adapting this traditional approach in response to the Prince’s riskier moves. He is maintaining functional relations with Riyadh, whilst also winning favour among Arab leaders that MBS upsets by reassuring them.
France can work as a counterweight to the UK and the US’s overwhelming support for the Crown Prince. Given Macron’s unabashedly pro-European stance, it can do this with the weight of the broader EU membership behind it. By cooperating with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and refusing to play favourites, France may be able to breathe new life into its traditional Middle Eastern strategy without overhauling it.
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