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Interview: French elections may mean more of the same on Middle East policy

With the possible exception of a win by Le Pen or Mélenchon, the French presidential elections are unlikely to bring any major changes in policy on the Middle East, commentator Alain Gresh tells Ahram Online's Dina Ezzat

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 23 Apr 2017
Alain Gresh
File photo: French writer and Journalist, Alain Gresh, Director assisstant of ' Le Monde Diplomatique, speaking in Cairo (Photo: Ayman Hafez)
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The French people went to the polls on 23 April for the first round of the nation's presidential elections. Hours before the voting began, Alain Gresh, prominent commentator and editor of Orient XXI, said that it would be wrong to completely fudge the differences between the Middle East positions of the five key people in the race to the Élysée. This would be a mistake, said Gresh, “just as it would be wrong to expect something really big from the next French president – whoever might win – on the Middle East.”

As Gresh spoke to Ahram Online from Paris, there was little difference in the polls between the five main contenders: Fronçois Fillon (of the traditional center-right Republicans); Marine Le Pen (of the far-right National Front); Emanuel Macron (who only a year ago founded his new party En Marche, which translates as "Moving on");Jean-Luc Mélenchon (from the left of the left-wing Unsubmissive France); and Benoît Hamon (of the Socialist Party). Hamon's party is also that of outgoing French President François Hollande, who is not running for a second term and who is actually backing Mélenchon.

According to Gresh, "This is one of the most interesting presidential elections” for France. For the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic, the presidential election is not really a bras de fer between Gaullists (of the Republican Party) and socialists (of the Socicalist Party). “Actually, in this election, we could well see Macron and Len Pen going to the run-offs of the presidential election on 7 May,” Gresh said.

At the time of the interview, said Gresh, there was no clear-cut indication as to how things would turn out: “And it is not only that the polls are not really offering a big difference between the chances of the key candidates, but also that we learned from the last presidential elections – and from the UK vote on the Brexit – that we should never have such blind faith in the polls.”

However, according to the commentator, who has spent the last four decades writing about French foreign policy and the Middle East, the elections will have no major impact on the Middle East - “not really” - unless the victor is Le Pen, “who is really opposed to migration,” or Melanchon, “who is really on the side of a fair, negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Particularly on the issue of the Palestinian cause, Gresh seems hesitant to think that France could really write the agenda of the next phase of possible negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. “This is not about the position of France under any given president on the issue, but it is rather about the limited impact that France really has on the management of Middle East foreign policy today," said Gresh. "This is not the 1950s, or even the 1970s.”

With Le Pen, however, Gresh is expecting the National Front leader to opt for a slightly "more pro-Israel" policy. “Traditionally, the NF has had a somehow confused position on the matter, because it neither supported the French right nor the Israelis – given the radical positions of the Jean-Marie Le Pen [former leader of the party] on the Holocaust,” Gresh said.

Recently, his daughter Marine Le Pen has tried somehow to mend fences with Israel by sending an envoy, “but it did not really pick up, and it is not clear how things might unfold in the future should she be elected,” said Gresh.

“Marine Le Pen is not worried about the Jews; she is worried about the radical Islamist groups – not just the militants, but also the political ones,” Gresh stated.

During her campaigning tours, Le Pen said that is crucial for France to stand alongside those Middle East countries that are at war with “radical Islamism”. She particularly praised the role of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as “one of the most dependable partners against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

This, Gresh said, is “very similar, if not fully identical, to the position of Fillon on Islamism.” In statements he had made in the run-up to the campaigning phase, Fillon described the veil worn by some Muslim women as "a symptom of an illness”. To combat the illness, he said, there should be an offensive against radicalism, including the Islamic State group, along with “a ban on Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

However, unlike Le Pen, Fillon, is not willing to engage in a diplomatic offensive against the Gulf states, particularly for their assumed roles in supporting radical Islamic movements that at times have militant wings or offshoots. Instead, he sees the Gulf states as equal victims of terrorism, and he wishes to work with them to eliminate radicalism and militant Islamism.

As for Mélenchon, Gresh said, he has called for France to use its influence to secure political resolutions to the conficts in the Middle East. And in this respect, said Gresh, Mélenchon does take a very clear and sound position on the rights of the Palestinian people in the context of international legitimacy, which should make it possible for the "weaker side" to see their legitimate rights acknowledged.

This, said Gresh, goes beyond Fillon's rhetoric on the two-state solution on the basis of a commitment to the security of Israel, and it is certainly less drastic than Hamon's position, which favours the recoginition of a Palestinian state side-by-side with the state of Israel. However, Mélenchon's stance is quite similar to that of Marcron.

For the most part, Gresh does not see any major differences between the key players on the issue of migration and how they might conduct relations with the North African states – including Egypt – to control migration, especially illegal migration from across Africa and the Middle East.

The same, he argued, goes for a general sense of realization that it is not worthwhile France maintaining tough pressure on Iran; this combines with a general sense that France cannot be very compromising or too accommodating when it comes to the political choices of Turkey’s Erdogan.

It is on Syria that Gresh does see some clear differences between the candidates. Le Pen perceives the regime of Assad as a protector of the Christian minority and insists that it was a mistake for France to close its embassy in Syria in 2011. Fillon argues the case for a balanced position between the two sides, which he views as running the show by proxy in Syria, namely Russia and Iran on the one hand and the Gulf countries on the other, thereby ensuring that France has a say in the political process. Hamon insists on the elimination of the Assad regime, but Macron says that it should not be France's objective at any price. This is quite similar to the position of Mélenchon, who argues that French influence on the Syria issue has been weakened by insisting on the removal of Assad without having anyone to take his place.

Then again, Gresh points out, such differences might have become somewhat diluted – perhaps considerably diluted – once the elected president enters the Élysée Palace. Once in power, he or she would also have to keep an eye on “the big economic interests” that link France with the Arab Gulf countries, not to mention the leading world capitals such as Washington and Brussels. And this includes the poll-favoured Macron, said Gresh.

At the end of the day, Gresh says, one cannot overlook the diplomatic hassel that France suffered under Hollande for over a year in order to arrange a Middle East peace conference in Paris – with few significant results or, for that matter, prospects.

In any event, Gresh is convinced that the re-making of the French political scene, which manifests in the failure of the two traditional leading camps to establish a clear path to the run-offs, is the big story for France in the coming years.

“I think we have a very interesting political scene to observe, given that Hollande is not running for a second term and that we are not even seeing Alain Juppé [of the Republicans] running against Manuel Valls [of the Socialist Party],” Gresh said.

“Actually, as Mélenchon said, we might well be talking about the establishment of the Sixth Republic, rather than anything else,” said Gresh.

So, does Gresh subscribe to the popular view that the run-offs will see Le Pen and Macron going head to head, or does he share the leftist fear of a run-off between LePen and Fillon?

“I really don’t know; it is not clear,” he said.

Then does he subscribe to the common position that “France is not America and Le Pen cannot be elected the way Donald Trump was”?

“Well, we will see,” he concluded, almost skeptically.

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