France has never been absent from the Middle East theatre since the Napoleonic campaigns and the ill-fated invasion of Egypt and Syria by France between 1798 and 1801. For the two centuries that have followed France has remained a major player positively or negatively in the fate of many countries in the region.
Through its colonial presence in the North African Maghreb countries or in the Levantine ones such as Syria and Lebanon, France has left an undeniable mark on the region’s politics, language and culture. French is still widely spoken in many countries around the Middle East and North Africa region as a first or main language.
The French role in the region diminished after the end of the cold war and with the United States dominating the scene after the first Gulf War. But over the past few years, the French role has been getting larger and stronger under French President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership.
Macron may still suffer from some domestic economic and social troubles in France and possibly some loss of popularity, but the opposite can be felt across the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. France has been a key player in recent events in the face of the Neo-Ottoman expansionist ambitions of the present Turkish regime. Turkey has been involved militarily in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and it has been supporting terrorist organisations in Libya as well as in Yemen and Somalia.
France wants to see an end to the Libyan Civil War and a reduction in the Islamist influence in the country, with the latter being supported by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The French believe that an Islamist-dominated government in Libya backed by terrorist militias that include Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) group, and Muslim Brotherhood elements could jeopardise North Africa as a whole and have negative impacts on some of its closest allies such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. All of these countries have long-standing ties with France, including economic and military cooperation as well as sizeable French investments.
Moreover, an Islamist-ruled Libya would endanger the outcome of the French war on terrorism in Africa, represented by Operation Barkhane which was launched in 2014 and is still ongoing. About 5,000 French troops are stationed mainly in Chad as the Operation targets IS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups in the African Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
One of the aims of the operation is to nip terrorist-group activities in the bud and prevent them from reaching the North African countries and from there finding their way to southern Europe and eventually France. If the state of lawlessness in large parts of Libya continues thanks to Turkish support for terrorist activities, the country will continue to be a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the European continent and France cannot accept that.
Macron conducted two visits to Lebanon following the horrific explosions that took place in Beirut on 4 August killing over 200 civilians and injuring thousands of others as well as destroying significant parts of the city. In his first visit to Lebanon after the explosions, Macron received a hero’s welcome from the public, though he was perhaps not received with the same enthusiasm by the country’s political elite. Macron expressed his county’s intention to stand firmly behind Lebanon in its present crisis, which was preceded by an economic collapse as well as widespread social and security concerns.
However, Macron has placed conditions on French help for Lebanon, and these include the formation of a new cabinet and the introduction of far-reaching economic reforms. In his second visit to Lebanon in September, Macron reiterated his support and demanded that the new Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab swiftly form a new government.
His second visit included meetings with Lebanese cultural icons such as the legendary singers Fairuz and Magda Al-Rumi, with these being ways of winning the battle for Lebanese hearts and minds. He awarded Fairuz the French Legion of Honour, the country’s highest award, after paying her a visit at her house. For the Lebanese nation, Fairuz is a unifying symbol, and the award manifested Macron’s policy of seeking unity in the politically torn county.
Some Lebanese politicians, such as former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, are wary of French interference in Lebanese affairs. However, Macron has wide public backing from Lebanese citizens, with many saying that if he ran for political office in the country he would win.
Macron’s visit to Iraq was also a landmark and came at a time when the Iraqi state is facing all sorts of challenges, including the Turkish incursions in the Kurdish region of the country, the impacts of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis and the power shortages that have plagued the country. Macron reasserted Iraq’s sovereignty during his visit in what was a clear message to Turkey and Iran about their interference in Iraq over the past decade. He also offered to assist in the country’s power crisis by offering to construct a French nuclear power station. Iraqi officials viewed the visit positively and believe that France may be a counterweight to Iranian and Turkish ambitions in the country.
Macron’s visit to Iraq represented a major step forward in curbing Erdogan’s ambitions to control the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq on the pretext of fighting terrorism. It will also open the door to a bigger French role in the country through economic cooperation.
France is also assuming a leading role in Europe and projecting its diplomatic power in the Middle East as well as its military power in the Mediterranean. The country’s unbending support for Greece and Cyprus against Turkish threats has not been just empty words. France has deployed naval units, including its powerful Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier, and a number of fighter jets to Greece and Cyprus in a message that Macron will not only protect French interests and French allies by diplomatic means, but that he will also use military ones should the need arise. Aside from the Greek and Cypriot leaders, Macron remains the most outspoken EU leader against Turkish aggression in the region.
All this is taking place as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political role recedes, and Macron is stepping up to fill the void. France is gaining the kind of role that Germany has managed to play for years in the Middle East, and it is wielding military force to back it. France may also play more of a role in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq where the US role is no longer desired by the public or politicians. Time will tell whether that role will be met with success or not.
As a member of the NATO alliance, a nuclear power, and one of the world’s top ten leading economies, France has been displaying a more hands-on attitude in dealing with some of the region’s long-standing problems by diplomatic or military means. Macron’s friendly ties with many of the region’s leaders have enabled him to play a role that most European countries no longer desire to play, and should success be on his side he will change his country’s political course towards assuming a larger and more dynamic role in world affairs.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly