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Relative Stability: France’s Middle East Policy during Macron’s Second Term

The second round of the French presidential elections ended with Emmanuel Macron winning a second term, receiving 58.54 percent of votes against 41.46 percent for his right-wing rival Marine Le Pen. 

While the political campaigns of the French presidential candidates are usually dominated by domestic issues, with foreign policy issues left less clear, albeit having a perceptible impact on identifying the relative weight of candidates among the electorate. 

In a country where the head of the state has excessive unmonitored powers in formulating foreign policy, it becomes critical to explore foreign policy directions of the successful candidate. This paper reviews “Macron’s Doctrine” on the Middle East and identifies its main lines, while exploring Macron’s policy towards the region during the next five years.

Macron’s Doctrine

During Emmanuel Macron’s first presidential term (2017-2022), France’s foreign policy towards the Middle East had witnessed a qualitative shift that represented an extension of the diplomacy established by President Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969) and pursued by Presidents Valéry d’Estaing (1974-1981) and François Mitterrand (1981-1995) and a clear separation from the approach of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012-2017) who debilitated the French influence in the region, particularly given France’s interaction with the Arab Spring events by supporting demonstrations and contributing to the overthrow of the former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, tightening of international isolation on Syria, which hampered the diplomatic and military achievements that were achieved during the first years of Sarkozy’s presidency and caused Paris to lose many of its regional partners.

Soon Macron realized the repercussions of this negative policy on France’s regional position and preferred to follow a pragmatic approach that goes beyond focusing on issues of democracy and human rights, shows a greater understanding of Arab fears, particularly terrorism, promotes security cooperation with regional partners to maintain regional balance, and expands cooperation to include new sub-regions that goes beyond France’s traditional footprint in North Africa and Levant. Over the past few years, France has become the most active European country in the Middle East and North Africa, with Macron making frequent visits to Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to entrench his country as a major strategic player in the region. Several agreements were signed that cover comprehensive partnerships in the economic, commercial and military fields and a range of diplomatic initiatives were introduced to address regional crises. France also adopted a new form of regional dialogue as has been evidenced by the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership held on 28 and 29 August 2021, which came after months of conversations between French and Iraqi officials.

Beyond this, France conducted joint exercises with Greece and Egypt in the Mediterranean and Red seas and with the UAE in the Arabian Gulf. The French position on regional developments have always been characterized by caution and reservation so as to avoid angering Arab partners. For instance, in a step that runs counter to France’s declared policy, France described the visit of the Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed to Syria as a “sovereign” decision. Paris’ position on the corrective measures of Tunisian President Kais Saied on 25 July 2021 was conservative and non-critical and when Saudi Arabia took measures against Lebanon, the response of French officials was prudent. 

France’s interest in the Middle East is governed by the important security interests exemplified by the ongoing migration crisis, the spread of armed terrorist organizations, and defense and military partnerships aimed at securing commercial sea routes and strengthening the region’s defenses against terrorist groups, let alone the expansion of areas of joint cooperation between the two sides to include economic recovery and trade, technological innovation, food security, and cultural, social, academic, and environmental exchanges. Overall, the factors governing the French policy towards the region can be identified as follows:

Reviving de Gaulle’s Approach: Macron embraces Charles de Gaulle’s approach that is based on maintaining a foreign policy that is independent from the United States even if it happens that the US is part of the Western alliance and persuading European countries to embrace ​​strategic autonomy. Towards that, France has pushed for a more effective and influential common European security and defense policy. However, its endeavors in this regard only yielded modest results which led French leaders to seek a more flexible approach by playing a leadership role in EU foreign policy and taking unilateral actions that would qualify Paris to become the main Western player in the Middle East, capitalizing on the existential challenges that afflicted the European Union (EU) and weakened its ability to lead diplomatic initiatives that transcend the geographical boundaries of Europe, particularly given the political vacuum left by German Chancellor Angela Merkel whose successor Olaf Scholz is still groping his way towards formulating a foreign policy and the exit of Britain from the EU, a member state that enjoyed excellent relationship with the Gulf Council Countries (GCC). Britain’s split from the EU opens the door for Paris to take Britain’s place being the only EU member that has shown some willingness to deploy military assets in the Middle East and North Africa, which is a significant point given the priority that Middle Eastern and North African governments give to security guarantees from partners.

Restoring France’s Status: Macron believes that the Middle East is an important theater for the French interests and a place to reinforce France’s global standing and consolidate its position as an important player in international affairs and a leading country in the European Union. To that end, Paris has deepened its diplomatic relations with key countries in the region such as Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to highlight its independent role in the Middle East beyond the boundaries of the EU’s multilateral involvement in the region.

Filling the US Vacuum in the Region and Confronting the Growing Russian and Chinese Influence: One of the main challenges for France in the Middle East has been the US dominance over the region. However, with the US relative withdrawal from key conflict areas in the EU southern neighborhood (i.e. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan) and the shift of the US focus to the Indo-Pacific, France considers this as an opportunity to reassert its geopolitical importance in the Middle East, on the conviction that European countries should increasingly engage with regions where their core interests are intertwined, such as North Africa, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. From France’s strategic point of view, the reduction of the US regional involvement and Europe’s overlooking developments in the region creates a vacuum that France must fill and not to leave for China and Russia. Perhaps this explains the growing French presence in Iraq for fear of Baghdad joining the Iranian-Chinese-Russian axis. France’s interest in Iraq stems from its geographical location, linking Syria and Lebanon with Iran and thus allowing China and Russia to reach this strategically important French strip. That is why France works not to leave Iraq under the control of its competitors.

Stability of Europe’s Southern Neighboring Countries: France’s interest in the Middle East lies in the need to ensure stability in Europe’s southern neighboring countries, given the profound impact of regional conflicts on Europe over the past decade. So, ensuring security at home requires ensuring stability in neighboring regions and countries through increased participation in crisis management and resolution.

Pursuing Counter-Terrorism Efforts: Over the past years, France has come under several terrorist attacks that it was the Western country that faced the largest number of attacks since 2014. Therefore, combating terrorism was –and will remain– a priority in the French diplomacy. France’s counter-terrorism vision is based on encircling and refuting terrorism within distant arenas to avoid the transmission of the terrorist threat internally, a vision that was provided for in the strategic review of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces as of 2021, which stated that “it would be dangerous to overlook the continuing threat of jihadist terrorism or to leave regions plagued by instability to fend for themselves, as they provide opportunities for the ambitions of emboldened global and regional powers.” 

As such, France’s strategy to combat terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa is based on strengthening regional cooperation with friendly governments, maintaining a military presence on several fronts, and sustaining its involvement within the international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) to mitigate the risks of the organization’s growing activity, achieve stability in the liberated areas of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and share intelligence to identify French jihadists who are fighting with IS towards increasing the effectiveness of its fight against terrorism at home.

Promoting the French Defense Industry: Arms sales remain a main driving force for France’s rivalry for influence in the region, particularly the United States’ reassessment of its defense relationship with regional partners would offer Paris an opportunity to capture important military deals similar to Qatar’s purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in 2015 and 2018. The significance of this partnership became apparent after Australia’s cancellation of a $66 billion deal with France to purchase 12 French submarines in the interest of the United States, which Paris viewed as a stab in the back from the West and wanted to respond to it and compensate for the losses that had befallen the defense industries sector. In this context, during Macron’s visit to the UAE in December 2021, France signed a $19 billion defense contract that was under preparation for over a decade, under which Abu Dhabi will buy 80 Rafale combat aircraft and 12 Airbus Helicopters H225M. Beyond this, under additional contracts, the UAE also purchased military equipment and Helicopters worth $3 billion.

Boosting Investment Prospects for French Companies: France has broad strategic economic interests in the Middle East related to the energy and reconstruction sectors. In the field of energy, Total has been working in Libya for seven decades. Total, along with another group, owns 22.5 percent stake in the Iraqi Halfaya oil field and holds 18 percent of exploration rights in Kurdistan. It is also conducting exploration operations on the southern coast of Cyprus near the Lebanese coast. On 7 September 2021, the Iraqi oil ministry announced that Baghdad had concluded a deal with Total worth $27 billion, including a $10 billion infrastructure contract that would later allow for funding a second phase of investments worth $17 billion.

The reconstruction market in the region, which is estimated at billions, is also a pull factor for French companies that seek to obtain a significant share of infrastructure projects in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon. France’s economic partnership with the Arab world offers various investment opportunities for French companies. For example, Macron’s Gulf tour in December 2021 gave rise to several comprehensive economic agreements with the UAE worth $17 billion, including the creation of the French Emirati Fund Partnership with a value of $3.6 billion to develop French projects in the UAE. Additionally, the UAE sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, plans to invest nearly $1.6 billion in the French economy, in sectors of energy, semiconductors, and space exploration. Airbus signed a contract to sell 26 H145 and H160 aircraft to the Saudi Helicopters Company. Veolia Environment signed a contract worth €83 million to manage water and sanitation services in 23 Saudi cities and concluded a strategic partnership agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Investment. In Qatar, French companies have multiple contracts related to projects on energy, water resources, and the 2022 World Cup facilities.

Future Prospects

While Arab politics were, to a large extent, absent from the presidential campaigns of Macron and Le Pen, its broad lines that Macron established during his first term are likely to continue to be in effect, particularly those related to the repositioning of France in the Middle East as a reliable partner and deepening of the multisectoral strategic partnerships with countries which France has growing military and commercial interests with, especially the Gulf countries, which have become major purchasers of the French military equipment, as well as Lebanon, a country that is stricken by a massive political and economic crisis but has a central importance within France’s broader geopolitical perceptions of the Middle East.

Macron will work to achieve the French interests in the region, including combating terrorism, securing energy sources, stopping the flows of refugees and illegal immigrants, opening new markets for the French defense industry, promoting trade exchanges, and providing huge investment opportunities for French companies. In this context, France’s relations with the main players in the Middle East, i.e. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, are expected to continue being essential to France’s strategy in the region. France also will try to activate pacification and dialogue tools to start broader discussions on regional stability building on the Baghdad Conference experience, where it was agreed that the Jordanian capital, Amman, host the next summit in 2022. Overall, Macron will be keen to fill the strategic vacuum created by the diminished US role.

France isn’t likely to change its position regarding the larger regional challenges such as the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the Syrian crisis, the Palestinian cause, and the Lebanese crisis. On Iran, Macron has taken a tougher stance than the United States on some of the issues currently being negotiated in the Vienna talks that the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that France “played the role of a bad cop in the nuclear negotiations” after the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in January 2022 complained of the slow pace of negotiations. Despite this, France will inevitably agree to the new nuclear agreement if it is officially signed even if it does not approve to its articles.  

On the Syrian crisis, France insists on refusing restoration of its diplomatic relations with Damascus until a permanent political solution is reached in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (that is based on the Western, rather than the Russian, vision). It is unlikely that France fully support Russia, Turkey, and Iran on the political process in Syria which would push them to seek closer cooperation with the United States on this respect, but it will not also publicly oppose the UAE-led Arab moves aimed at reintegration of Syria so as to avoid angering its new regional partners.

With regard to the Palestinian cause, it has become of a lower priority for Paris. The rise of terrorism in France has led to broader cooperation between the Israeli and French security and intelligence services. However, Macron will likely adhere to the traditional French position that calls for a two-state solution and opposes the Israeli settlement expansion. The French president says his priority is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to launching a peace process, rejecting any earlier recognition of Palestine. However, aspects of the French cooperation with Israel will continue even if the political tensions between the two sides continue to rise from time to time, as happened during Macron’s visit in January 2020 to Jerusalem, when he criticized Israeli security for escorting him to a French church in the old city of Jerusalem.

Lebanon remains a priority for the French policy in the region. While the French initiatives aimed at addressing Lebanon’s dire economic problems or achieving political stability and security have failed, the priority is to avoid destabilization of Lebanon, which would endanger France’s security interests. The French authorities will likely continue to place pressure on the Lebanese government to get it to adopt the much-needed structural reforms in areas of infrastructure, administration, and energy. The same is true of Iraq. Despite failure to launch several ambitious French-Iraqi economic projects during the past two years, France developed a diplomatic rhetoric on Iraq considering it a pole of stability. With the end of the US forces’ combat missions and fearing that this would leave a security vacuum in Iraq that could become a major source of destabilization, Macron declared during his last visit on 28 August 2021 France’s intention to keep the French forces in Iraq.

While Macron’s re-election as president for five other years entails stability and relative sustainability of French foreign policy towards the region, new variables have emerged that will govern the patterns and levels of partnerships and alliances with the major powers in the region, including:

The Russo-Ukrainian War: The geopolitical repercussions of the Russo-Ukrainian war will reinforce the French elite’s view of the international order as undergoing a profound transformation, moving from a rules-based order to a new era of power politics and geopolitical rivalry. In this context, the French concept of European sovereignty and strategic independence will push France to move towards arenas in which it has broad strategic interests such as the Middle East and North Africa, particularly with the growing importance of Arab and Gulf energy sources within the European energy diversification strategy away from Russia.

Change of the US administration: During the administration of former US President Donald Trump, Macron sought to harmonize French and US policy in the Middle East and benefited from Trump’s confrontational approach towards Iran to achieve French interests in Lebanon and Iraq. During the crisis of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in November 2017, Macron intervened, in coordination with the United States, and secured his return to Lebanon. Despite this, Paris’ ability to achieve regional breakthroughs remained limited. With Biden administration coming to office, France looked forward to a permanent US commitment in the Middle East, where it relies on the United States for intelligence and logistical support for its regional moves, but the White House is less enthusiastic about coordination in the Middle East and has different priorities than Paris when it comes to the Middle Eastern conflicts and traditional allies in the region.

Decreased Geopolitical Rivalry with Turkey: The regional alignment against the Turkish gunboat diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean was one of the determinants of the French rapprochement with the Egypt-UAE-Greece-Cyprus axis as part of a regional security cooperation network to counterbalance Ankara. Paris wanted to send Ankara the message that it will not turn a blind eye to Turkey’s display of regional power at the expense of the interests of Greece and Cyprus, indicating its dissatisfaction with the Turkish military operations in northern Iraq and its military presence in Libya. However, the decreased intensity of the geopolitical confrontation with Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean in line with the Turkish policy of pacification and tension reduction will weaken the Turkish determinant within the French-Arab cooperation agenda. However, Turkey is unlikely to accept an increased French role that could weaken its regional standing and it closely monitors Macron’s moves. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has attacked Macron’s criticism of Turkey over its policies in Libya and Syria and the maritime border dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, describing them as hysterical.

In short, during the second term of Macron’s presidency, Paris will be keen to consolidate its new orientations towards the Middle East, based on its vision of an independent foreign policy and the assertion of the strategic independence of Europe, but it will face challenges related to the rejection of the two major regional powers (i.e. Iran and Turkey) to any French roles that affect their areas of influence. France will also have to deal with the attempts of China and Russia to marginalize the US and European presence in the region.

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