The Middle East and North Africa has been, traditionally, at the core of French diplomacy. Prior to World War I and until World War II, France had been an active great power in shaping the destinies of millions of Arabs, not to mention the diplomatic efforts made by successive French governments under the Fifth Republic to implement UN resolutions related to the Palestinian question. Whether it’s the founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles De Gaulle, or his successors, from the Right and Left, all adopted pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian positions in the context of French support for these resolutions. The Declaration of Venice in June 1980 on Palestinian rights was adopted by the then European Community due to French efforts under former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
Throughout the 1990s and the first two decades of the third millennium, till President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, various US administrations have been very active in Middle Eastern politics, be it the Palestinian question and the Peace Process or other crucial regional issues. In this historical context, the role of the European powers and the European Union were secondary to the American role. In the Peace Process, the European Union became a member in the Quartet, and a decade later, three leading European powers — namely, France, Germany and Great Britain — co-signed with the United States, Russia and China the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA) in July 2015 to curb Iranian nuclear activities. On the other hand, France and other European powers had joined the International Coalition to Degrade and Defeat Daesh (the terrorist group known as the “Islamic State”) under the leadership of the United States in 2014.
At the end of 2018, the Trump administration announced its troop drawdown in Syria, alleging that the Islamic State group had been defeated. In later months, the US administration made clear that US global strategy would center on containing China in the Pacific-Indo region. The age of deep American involvement in the Middle East is coming to a close.
The two visits by French President Emmanuel Macron to Beirut on 6 August and 31 August, and then his lightening visit to Baghdad on Wednesday, 2 September, signal a reinvolvement by the French in the Middle East as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, a traditional domain for French diplomacy. Some would argue that the three visits mark a strategic shift in the Middle East for years to come where France would play a greater diplomatic and military role after the departure of American troops from the region in the next three years, unless the Democratic candidate in the US presidential elections in November, former vice president Joe Biden, wins and decides to roll back the Trump decision to withdraw American forces from the Middle East.
Needless to say, France, on its own, cannot make up for the military presence and diplomatic clout of the United States in the region. For its role and influence to be effective it would need local and European partners and allies to shoulder costly military involvement in the Middle East.
For one, its newfound role should be supported openly by the United States, which would call for more political coordination with Washington — coordination that has not been smooth most of the time, particularly when it comes to the Palestinian question and how to deal with the theocratic regime in Tehran.
Secondly, French diplomacy — to succeed in the region — should steer away from taking sides in the Sunni-Shia confrontation across the Middle East, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The exercise of balancing the interests of both camps will not be easy, especially if President Trump would be re-elected and his administration would continue implementing its “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran.
Thirdly, how French diplomacy would deal with the situation and the future of Syria would determine, to a great extent, its success or lack of in the Levant. To succeed in Lebanon would necessitate a minimum of coordination with Syria, and understandings with Iran. This would be key in unlocking the intractability of the role of Hizbullah in the future stability and security of Lebanon. French diplomacy cannot ignore the Shia of Lebanon, in particular the hundreds of thousands of followers of this “Party of God”.
Fourthly, recent developments in Arab-Israeli relations in light of the tripartite agreement between the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Israel — which is expected to be followed by similar agreements with other Arab countries, if we are to believe statements by American and Israeli officials in this respect — would call on the French government to adopt a new approach in tackling the Palestinian question, aiming to reconcile the growing trend of normalisation with the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, on the one hand, and the ultimate implementation of the two-state solution on the other. A complicating factor facing French diplomacy will be the fate of annexing Palestinian territories and the Jordan Valley to Israel proper. For the time being, the Israeli annexation plan is on hold because of an American veto, but no one can predict for how long this veto would remain in force.
Despite, the challenges and the obstacles, one thing is sure — renewed involvement by France in Middle Eastern affairs is welcomed by Arab governments, and that is a very good starting point for President Emmanuel Macron in his quest to make France an indispensable and reliable partner in the search for security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly