Two sundays ago, French President Emmanuel Macron won an absolute majority in parliament. As he begins to govern in earnest, he will have to define an overall policy towards the Middle East. What we’re likely to see is a president who is conscious that there is only so much France can do, but who also cannot avoid focusing on issues vital to the country, above all terrorism.
Under the French system, foreign policy is, with defense, a “reserved sphere” for the president, who has quasi-unchecked decisionmaking powers. This power was established by the founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, and was exploited by the Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, though other presidents were less keen to fully exercise such authority.
During his presidential campaign, Macron claimed he would follow in this “Gaullo-Mitterrandist tradition,” both in form and substance, leaving many analysts puzzled about what he really meant. So far, in style at least, it has become obvious through his first contacts abroad that the young leader will seek to be an activist president on his country’s behalf, in all realms. However, there is still much to be defined and understood. That is particularly true in the Middle East and North Africa, where France, a middle power, still has great influence.
A FOCUS ON FIGHTING TERRORISM
And there, form and substance will very probably mix, indicating what could constitute a “Macron doctrine.” From North Africa to the Levant to the Gulf, one priority has already been very strongly affirmed by the president, namely anti-terrorism. In this context, he and his officials use the expression “Islamist extremism” without hesitation, or criticism, in the context of greater security. Macron also favors an approach to the region that privileges stability, albeit based on inclusive political solutions. Taken from this angle, it is not original. However, the details are revealing.
During Macron’s campaign, and in some recent statements, he tended to use harsh terms when discussing the attacks against France, arguing that there was a need to “eradicate the terrorists.” The president has preferred to use the term “Da‘esh” instead of “the Islamic State” when discussing the group’s actions in the “Iraqi-Syrian space,” where French aircraft and special operations forces have been active in Mosul and Raqqa. When asked about the road map toward a settlement for this territory, now viewed as a single geopolitical arena, Macron has often stated that the priority is to undermine terrorist networks there, then address the political aspects of the Syrian and Iraqi crises at a later stage through multilateral negotiations leading to an “inclusive stabilized political order.”
In Syria such a path is vague. Echoing the formula used by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, “If Assad is the enemy of the Syrian people, [the Islamic State] is the enemy of the world,” Macron has often been ambiguous when addressing the fate of Bashar al-Assad. This was particularly true this week when in an interview with several European newspapers, he declared, “I never said that the destitution of Bashar al-Assad was a prerequisite for everything, because no one has introduced to me his legitimate successor.” Syrian opposition circles were deeply troubled by the remarks.
However, Macron has expressed some clear directions in Syria, for instance that France would retaliate militarily against any new chemical attack in the country, even unilaterally. The president has said that Assad’s fate is a matter for international justice, given the crimes committed by his regime, even if his latest remarks on Assad’s “legitimacy” hardly appeared to square with this. Moreover, his statement cast some doubt on the message one should take away from Macron’s much-publicized meeting with the Syrian opposition’s Riad Hijab, only a day after the president received Russian President Vladimir Putin at Versailles.
Other components of Macron’s Syria policy have also been left hanging. They include his declaring the “necessity to gather all the parties around a table, including representatives of the Syrian president.” Or his insistence that France is keen on preserving a Syrian state, while remaining ambivalent about the relationship between that state, the regime, and the Assad clique.
Macron, like many other Western leaders, may seem obsessed with “failed states.” That’s not surprising in light of what happened in Iraq after 2003 and in Libya after 2011. However, applying the term indiscriminately poses problems: In Iraq the breakdown was caused by Western intervention; but in Libya, Western intervention was initially aimed at avoiding a massacre of civilians in Benghazi; while in Syria the West’s refusal to intervene only accelerated the country’s collapse. Yet Macron’s tendency has been to assume that all three interventions are the same and have facilitated the emergence of terrorist groups. This one-size-fits-all assessment could constrain the president in his future Syria policy.
A TALE OF TWO APPROACHES
Among the people around Macron, two foreign policy approaches are very discretely, albeit bitterly, confronting one another. One is a “realist cynical” stance favored by some former prime ministers and foreign ministers, as well as prominent veteran diplomats, who disagreed with the staunch anti-Assad line adopted by former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Those who subscribe to this approach do not give much attention, or even value, to the political and socio-economic dynamics that led people to revolt in the Arab world starting in 2010. Instead, they take a state-centric view that regards authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa as part of the natural fabric of their countries, and the only forces able to contain dangerous trends that may affect Europe. Rather than regarding Russia as a spoiler in Syria, advocates of this view believe that Europe’s future should be pursued in agreement with Moscow.
The other approach, anchored in Atlanticism, is one that stresses certain values, such as support for human rights, democracy, and civil society, as part of France’s “mission and message.” From a generational point of view, this is closer to those in Arab societies who bore the seeds of the Arab revolutions. Advocates of this view are more inclined to pursue the path that France has pursued so far in the region, and that was defended, sometimes very bravely, by Francois Hollande.
However, one should not forget the trauma provoked by the bloody attacks that have hit France since 2014. They have amplified a climate of suspicion, nurtured by populist forces, aimed at Arab refugee populations arriving from Syria and Iraq. It was no coincidence, therefore, that Macron, during his campaign and soon after his election, vowed to create a new anti-terrorism body, but this one on the macro-political level. Under the auspices of the coordonateur national du renseignement, the French equivalent of the American director of national intelligence, he quickly established the equivalent of the American National Counterterrorism Center, as well as potentially the embryo of a National Security Council. In it, all intelligence czars, high-ranking civil servants from the Justice and Interior Ministries, as well as other agencies, would track radical movements, jihadi activities, and short- and long-term terrorist threats on a continual basis.
Some figures in this new intelligence and security hierarchy are very interesting in that they provide signs of what Macron intends to focus upon. For instance, Bernard Emié was recently named head of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, France’s foreign intelligence agency. He was France’s ambassador during the dark but eventful years of 2004–2007 in Lebanon, one of the few countries visited by candidate Macron. Emié oversaw the passage and implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 in 2004, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hezbollah. He was in Beirut when former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, leading to the Syrian military pullout from Lebanon. After that, Emié served in Turkey and Algeria, both key posts. In the latter he kept an eye on France’s onetime territories in North Africa, in particular the Sahel, where French forces have been deployed against jihadi groups that potentially threaten Europe.
When it comes to the broader Middle East, France has focused on Africa, in particular the continent’s north. This is a region that Macron is very keen to address rapidly. A week after the election, his first visit outside Europe was to Mali, where he met with French troops deployed there, in the sole French-led anti-terrorism operation. The symbolism was clear: France would not hesitate to continue conducting bold military campaigns when needed.
Some weeks later, Macron’s next state visit was to Morocco. It was a stark departure from tradition that sees French presidents visit the country along with, or even after, its regional competitor Algeria. If the choice between the two large Maghreb powers is sensitive for any French president, Macron’s decision could be explained by one of the strongest moments of his campaign. On a visit to Algiers, he spoke of France’s colonial past, stating that it had committed “crimes against humanity” during that period. The incident opened up deep scars in French society, and could have cost Macron the presidency if the polls then were to be believed. Having taken such a risk it is possible that the president later felt that he did not have to be as studiously balanced between Morocco and Algeria.
THE TRAPEZE ARTIST
Probably the most puzzling aspect of France’s foreign policy in the making is where will the knife ultimately fall? On the side of values and ethics in politics, or on the side of political realism, to the detriment of the democratic exceptionalism France has claimed to embody since its revolution?
To sort this out, observers should recall a mantra used by Macron during his campaign. He frequently employed the phrase “en même temps,” or “at the same time”—as in “I may do A, but at the same time it is possible I will do B.” The idea behind this dialectical proposition was that complexity often compels you to do both one thing and its opposite—to pursue conservative economic policies while being socially on the left; to be conscious of France’s historical identity, while resolutely projecting the country into the future through a globalized high-tech knowledge-based economy.
In foreign policy in general, and the Middle East in particular, this balancing act will likely recur. One can imagine it being used in the Gulf, for example, where in the recent dispute between Qatar and its critics in the Gulf Cooperation Council, France quickly sought to mediate, and not only for opportunistic reasons. Macron inherited two very different paths in the region: Sarkozy’s tilt towards Qatar, then Hollande’s tilt toward Saudi Arabia. Today, the president sees an opportunity to reestablish a balance.
The balancing act will be visible on the Israeli-Palestinian front as well, where candidate Macron chose to distance himself from Hollande’s decision to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. He argued that such a position impeded peace talks and the role of honest broker that France wanted to play. This disappointed pro-Palestinian circles in France.
The new president will also hedge in addressing other issues where he will have to accommodate idealism and realism, values and interests. And there, the contradictions will no doubt flourish and give way to criticism, and probably some wavering. It will not be easy, for instance, to remain silent when faced with the authoritarian slide and terrible human rights record of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, with which Paris is living a kind of honeymoon, while also reassuring democratic opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “that France will always be at their side.”
Macron is a savvy, brilliant, and ambitious figure, who repeatedly stated that his aim was to return to France some of its lost stature. This is apparently his understanding of “Gaullo-Miterrandism.” It is noteworthy that several of the president’s foreign-policy statements affirmed that “France’s founding values” are “at the core of the defense of France’s interests.” How, or whether, Macron reconciles values and interests will be interesting to watch. Throughout his campaign, he stood for the “liberal order” in its Western sense, and argued that his “generation has the sacred duty to prevent a certain world from dying.”
But Macron also knows that this world has been profoundly transformed and that a manly handshake with Donald Trump will not prevent the U.S. president from withdrawing from international treaties. Nor will Macron’s publicly describing certain Russian media outlets as propaganda instruments in the presence of Vladimir Putin quell Moscow’s aggressiveness towards the West. In other words, the French president is aware of his country’s limitations and realizes it will have a difficult time making its voice heard in the tumult of the Middle East.