The relationship between France and the Middle East has been multifaceted, including not only deeper historical ties but also geopolitical, economic and cultural ones.
Yet, the centuries-old relationship between the former European colonial power and the peoples of the Middle East has also been replete with complications, contradictions and sometimes confrontations.
For decades, one of the main challenges to France in the Middle East has been the order imposed by the US on the region following the British withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, making it until recently the region’s dominant outside power.
Now, with US hegemony in the Middle East in relative decline, France seems to be ready to step in with President Emmanuel Macron making blunt moves and increasingly embroiling France in the region’s conflicts and tensions.
Macron’s latest regional overture was a highly publicised trip to Baghdad, where he tried to carve out a role for France in Iraq’s stalled state-rebuilding process after France’s long hesitation to be involved in the country following the US-led invasion in 2003.
Macron arrived in Baghdad on 2 September after a two-day visit to Lebanon where he fronted international efforts to help the former French protectorate after deadly explosions in Beirut that provoked protests that forced the government to resign.
In Baghdad, Macron voiced his support for the country’s sovereignty and pledged to help the government resist foreign interference, a major issue on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s agenda.
Macron’s promises came amid reports that France was considering redeploying troops as part of the US-led Coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS) in the country amid concerns over the terror group’s resurgence as the US plans to cut its troops in Iraq.
France’s political and military support for Iraq could also be crucial in view of Iran’s and Turkey’s interference in the country’s domestic affairs and China’s and Russia’s growing foothold in the oil-rich nation.
In Beirut, Macron launched an ambitious plan to get Lebanon’s embattled sectarian factions to commit to a roadmap of reforms tied to a new “goals-oriented” government.
Macron said he would return to Lebanon in December, which would be his third trip to the country since the 4 August port blasts and symbolising his high level of personal investment in the initiative.
But Macron’s most high-stakes move in the Middle East has been France’s standoff with Turkey over a host of sensitive issues including Turkish involvement in Libya and Ankara’s moves in the Mediterranean.
France has ordered its forces to the Eastern Mediterranean to assist Greece in its dispute over gas-drilling and economic zones with Turkey, escalating a conflict between the two NATO members.
The major part of the story behind France’s new proactive diplomacy in the Middle East is Macron’s new high-profile foreign policy, which is raising expectations about France’s ambitions to be a top global actor.
Over the last two years, Macron has initiated a flurry of diplomatic activities to position himself as Europe’s de facto foreign-policy leader, seizing on the vacuum left by lame-duck, messy or turbulent foreign policy-making in other key European nations.
Last year, Macron warned other European countries that they could no longer rely on the US to defend the continent through the NATO alliance, which he derided as “currently experiencing brain death.”
Macron has been critical of NATO for what he sees as the organisation’s ambivalence towards member Turkey and the latter’s confrontational policies in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
There has been no mistaking the symbolism behind Macron’s assertive policy in the Middle East, however. The French president clearly sees a strategic window through which he can lead Europe’s new foreign policies.
France, with its long imperialist interests and policies in the region, has become more deeply embroiled in the conflicts across the wider Middle East as the US has relatively disengaged from the region in recent years.
The French relationship with the Arabs may go back to a 9th-century Abbasid–Carolingian alliance and a series of embassies, rapprochements and forms of military cooperation between the French under the emperor Charlemagne and the Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rashid.
France played a major role in the European Crusades in the Middle Ages by vigorously embracing Europe’s Roman Catholic kingdoms in their wars to secure control of the holy sites in Palestine and extend Europe’s influence in the Orient.
The French campaign in Egypt from 1798 to 1801, led by Napoléon Bonaparte, came to be considered as a landmark strategic bid by France to attain hegemony in the Levant, and it was followed by the conquest of the North African Maghreb region.
As a rising imperial power in North Africa and the Mediterranean in the 19th century, France played a major part in undermining the former Ottoman Empire and participated in the consolidation of imperial spheres of influence in the eastern Mashreq region.
Against such a background, Macron may be trying to impose his agenda on the Middle East and to challenge the emerging order. But France’s capacity to influence events is hardly what it was a century ago.
Macron faces several daunting challenges, as his expectations clash with the complex reality in a Middle East that has entered a new era of growing geopolitical disorder.
Looming above everything, of course, is the future of the US presence in the Middle East. US policies in the region have shifted under President Donald Trump, and all eyes are now on whether he will change his isolationist policy if reelected, or if a new administration will radically reverse US regional approaches.
Nevertheless, while the US influence may be diminishing, it is hardly over, and the US is unlikely to retreat or drastically downsize its presence in the Middle East any time soon as regional power dynamics continue to reshape.
Then there is the question of how France will face down Russia and China, two world powers which have been boosting their role in the Middle East and seem set to further marginalise the influence of the US and the EU in the region.
How the EU will deal with Macron’s ambitions to make France lead Europe’s foreign policy from the front will be another key challenge to Macron’s Middle East agenda.
By strengthening its political position in the region, France would be pushing around Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, key European countries which have maintained huge geopolitical and economic interests in the Middle East.
The other important question that has been intriguing observers of the region is whether France has sufficient soft and hard power to deploy in the Middle East in order to compete with or confront other major international and regional players.
There is also the question of how Macron’s forays are being seen in the Middle East itself. This has been intriguing Middle Eastern observers, with many remaining sceptical about Macron’s pronouncements and querying whether they are really tantamount to a genuine comeback.
For many commentators, France’s make-believe return to the Middle East arouses more questions about style, substance and timing than it answers.
To them, one reason to be puzzled is the fog around Macron’s statements, which has overshadowed the reality of France’s ability to compete with international and regional rivals that maintain military and economic ties and illustrate the struggles lying ahead.
While China and Russia will remain devoted to their renewed regional presence and push to maintain their trade flows, diplomatic influence and military footholds, regional powers such as Iran and Turkey are unlikely to accept any increasing French role that could weaken their regional standing.
While Iran has so far kept a low profile on France’s encroachment on areas of vital interest to its regional influence, such as Lebanon and Iraq, and has instead been keeping a careful watch on Macron’s moves, Turkey has already been vociferous in criticising the French president’s assertiveness.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lambasted Macron’s criticisms of Turkey over its policies in Libya and Syria and over a dispute over maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean as “hysterical.”
Few other key regional and local players, such as Israel and the Iraqi Kurds, are willing or able to support Macron’s half-baked policies, which they likely see as not based on the regional balance of power and possibly risking further instability in the Middle East.
Over the decades, the Western nations have tried to impose their order on the Middle East, only to underline the limits of both their influence and their desire to adopt a constructive role in the region.
Macron’s rhetoric about solidifying France’s posture in the region reveals the priorities of a post-Brexit Europe and the EU’s struggle to fully wake up to new global realities and the shifting balance of power in the Middle East.
But beyond a few, vague and perfunctory announcements, the fundamental problems in the Middle East continue to be ignored, setting the stage for further popular discontent and sometimes more violent backlash.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly