French policies in the Middle East: high ambitions, declining influence

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France’s foreign policy in the Middle East underwent a major shift in the mid-1960s. At the core of what has been dubbed the “Arab policy of France”, shaped by Charles de Gaulle, lied the desire to break with two major legacies: the 1956 Suez crisis, when France took part in a coalition alongside with the United Kingdom and Israel against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to nationalize the Suez Canal; and the painful memory of the Algerian war of 1954-62. Both elements were in fact intertwined: if France decided to attack Egypt, it was partly because it considered Nasser a major supporter of the Algerian Resistance. In de Gaulle’s assessment, the Algerian war was damaging France’s long-term interests in the region. Therefore, he took advantage of the decolonization movement to extend France’s influence, not only in its former colonies but also within countries under British influence.

During the Cold War, this independent policy vis-à-vis the Atlantist block allowed France to maintain its privileged position amidst the non-aligned countries. De Gaulle’s condemnation of Israel’s expansionist wars and occupation attracted the support of many Arab countries at the United Nations. Stepping into the Middle East was also a way to reinforce France’s position in Europe. The economic and political outcomes of this shift proved so remarkable that de Gaulle’s successors all embarked on it. Under Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency, France particularly strengthened its ties with Iraq and signed many contracts shaping its trade privileges.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 this “Arab policy” quickly lost its relevance. A prime example of France’s return to a less independent policy lies in its joining the international and regional coalition against Saddam Hussain’s regime during the Second Gulf War (1991). Globalization and progressive European integration also contributed to undermining the role of sovereign states and led France to abandon its “Arab policy”. Everyone remembers the speech delivered by Dominique de Villepin in February 2003 at the UN Security Council against military intervention in Iraq; yet few know France retrospectively justified the occupation of Iraq by rallying behind Resolution 1483.

In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy had France reintegrate into NATO’s military command. Over the past 20 years, despite France’s historic and active commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian State, France’s policy in the Middle East has been increasingly leaning towards an alignment with Israel’s. This return to an old policy towards Israel (the Israeli war in 1967 was won thanks to French-manufactured Mirage fighter jets) represents another expression of France moving away from de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy.

Inconvenient autocrats and persistent interests

Yet it would be a mistake to read this shift as a real turnaround. France’s new policy towards the Middle East didn’t prevent it from maintaining close links with the Arab regimes that appeared in the 1970s. During the Iraq-Iran war for instance, France fervently supported Saddam Hussain and his so-called secular regime despite the slaughtering of the Kurds and the Shia population.

The outbreak of revolutionary processes and crises in the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and 2011 rapidly challenged the special relationship that France had been maintaining for 40 years. Indeed France had good reasons to be embarrassed by its policy and its ties with authoritarian Arab regimes. 

In order to modify this image, France has overdone it. This is perfectly illustrated by the Libyan example: France felt that it had the “duty” to intervene and wanted to portray itself as the great liberator, protecting the Libyan people in their quest for democracy. This policy could be compared to that shaped by American neo-conservatives in the late 1980s. Following the American example in Iraq in 2003, France was betting on the success of a democratic process in the Arab countries. Of course let’s not forget that in March 2011, when France decided to intervene in Libya, it was not sure what the internal struggle between secular and religious forces would result in. But the belief that Islamism could be compatible with democracy as shown by the AKP ruling party in Turkey or the experiences that went on after 2011 in both Morocco and Tunisia was conveyed in former French Prime Minister and then-Foreign Minister Alain Juppé’s speech at the Institut du Monde Arabe in April 2011. In this new era France’s aim is to set a diplomatic and political dialogue with governments, and above all, with other types of actors such as civil societies.

Misreading the Syrian crisis

France’s lack of foresight regarding the Arab Springs was shared with almost all outside powers and even local actors. But the fact remains that France, as an active player in the region, was blind concerning the social realities on the ground. In any case, following the 2011 revolts, the region’s political evolution became less and less consistent with the democratic transition it was originally aiming for.

The misreading of the Syrian situation, in particular, has led France to publicly call for Bashar al-Assad’s ousting, neglecting the possibility that the Syrian regime could prove quite resilient. Indeed French diplomacy regarding Syria was based on wishful thinking. The worst episode in this regard happened in August 2013 when France didn’t make a move disclosing its intention to participate in an American-led military coalition aimed at launching military strikes against the regime. The justification for an intervention collapsed with the Russian proposal to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal. It was a perfect way out for the Americans who welcomed the initiative – but France too was spared a costly dead end in Syria. This episode, plus the waves of jihadist groups that have overwhelmed eastern Syria since 2013, helped to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad on the international scene. France has since then lost its political influence and therefore will hardly be an active part of an eventual diplomatic solution.

Inconsistent diplomacy and double-standards

France’s foreign policy has since been increasingly inconsistent. On the one side it aimed at placing human rights concerns at the core of its regional strategy – for instance when condemning Assad’s actions – but on the other  it appeared as a bare pragmatic approach – as in the case of the recent sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets to the Egyptian regime although it has undertaken a harsh breakdown on its opponents since 2012, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Such choices contradict the French official position pretending to encourage Arab countries along the path of democratic transitions.

This paradoxical policy also has a negative impact on a national scale in France: it feeds the radicalization within French society and it is used as another reason – or at least a pretext – for young Muslims to join jihadists groups in Syria and elsewhere.

The fear of jihadism in public opinion grew after ISIS managed to take control of Mosul in June 2014. For France, this threat also has an impact on a domestic level since significant numbers of foreign fighters are being recruited in France. More than 1,000 French fighters are estimated to have joined the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq; 100 have returned to their country of origin; 90 have been reported dead. The complexity of such a situation and the intertwining between domestic and foreign issues could explain why it seems so difficult for France to settle on consistent political principles in the Middle East.

With the outbreak of the “Arab Springs” France started to forge a new policy based on the idea of reaching out to civil societies, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It demonstrated a will to start a dialogue with Ennahdha in Tunisia as well as the Justice and Development party in Egypt. The establishment of a dialogue with Islamist parties did not reach out to Hamas in Palestine, which is still officially considered a terrorist organization by the EU. In any case, with the failure of democratic transitions – the chaos in Libya, a sort of restoration in Egypt, and the ongoing civil war in Syria – France realigned its policy with Western powers prioritizing the need to contain a bigger threat.

Although France has long been critical of the US “war on terror”, the growing power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant led France to basically reposition itself alongside the United States.

Syria may remain – despite some inconsistencies – the last country reflecting France’s desire to implement diplomacy based also on values. France is still keen to emphasize its historical support for minorities in the Middle East having been the long-standing protector of the Maronite Christians, in particular. Offering some protection to the Yezidis and supporting the Kurds in their bloody fight against ISIS is a reflection of this lingering sense of a French “mission” in the region.