Farouk Mardam-Bey | Author of numerous books, including, with Samir Kassir, Itinéraires de Paris a Jérusalem: la France et le Conflit Israélo-Arabe (Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes), director of the Sinbad collection at the French Actes Sud publishing house
What we used to call “France’s Arab Policy,” the core of which was an independent and objective approach to the Palestinian question, granted France undeniable prestige in the Arab world, while also ensuring its economic interests. However, due to the upheavals shaking the globe and the changes propelled by successive French presidents in accordance with their political, ideological, and emotional inclinations, this broad approach has been gradually diluted in favour of bilateral relations, good or bad, with different Arab countries.
French President Emmanuel Macron is not the first president to claim, in the name of efficiency and pragmatism, that he will play a role in the Mideast allowing him to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Yet, the only role he will be assigned, the first signs of which are already evident, is that of a subordinate accomplice of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin.
All his statements and actions prove it. He does not know with whom he is dealing in this most unfortunate and dangerous part of the world. He thinks that with a “Dear Bibi,” he can bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his senses; that by negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he can urge him to resign. He ignores, or pretends to ignore, the imperial ambitions of Iran. He proposes to eradicate terrorism by building an alliance with the very regimes from which terrorism stems. This policy is condemned to float, light and empty, like a soap bubble.
François d’Alançon | Foreign correspondent for the La Croix newspaper in Paris
Like his predecessors, Emmanuel Macron will try to maximize France’s strategic assets—its permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, its nuclear power status, and its military capability—to restore some of France’s lost stature in the Middle East. Behind his pro-European stance, Macron shares the traditional French view of Europe as a way to project French power and influence, compensating for France’s middle-power limitations. In the past, France had asked other EU partners to share the burden of its military operations in the Sahara, with few results. In the name of efficiency, Macron seems ready for a more pragmatic “EU oriented” or multilateral approach, or both, pushing for regional and international frameworks, with France as principal facilitator.
Two examples come to mind. In Syria, Macron wants to position France as an “honest broker,” talking to all parties involved—the United States, Russia, the European Union, and its own European partners, as well as regional actors such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Paris would like to seek a broad political settlement, through a process involving the five permanent members of the Security Council and regional powers. The question, however, is whether Moscow and Washington really need France. Russia is sponsoring its own multilateral framework through the Astana talks and has been directly engaged with Washington over the creation of de-escalation zones in the south and the Euphrates Valley.
In the Sahel, Macron has relaunched the G5 Sahel Force, a five-country African force of 5,000 troops. Approved by the Security Council, it could serve to get support from other actors, including the European Union. Until now, however, France has been unable to reverse the Trump administration’s reluctance to lend it financial assistance.
They key question is how Macron will be able to efficiently balance French national interests and multilateralism. He is likely to be frustrated in his attempt to increase French power and influence in the Middle East unless he can act as a catalyst for concerted European responses and multilateral processes, rather than pushing unilateral initiatives. His failure to coordinate his recent Libya initiative with Italy raised eyebrows in Europe, calling into question his commitment to working with his EU partners to resolve shared problems.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, former European Union ambassador and head of delegation to Turkey (2006–2011), ambassador to Tunisia and Libya (2002–2006), Syria (1998–2002), and Morocco (1991–1995). First coordinator for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, or the Barcelona Process, from 1995 to 1998
At the start of his term, which was marked by optimism, Emmanuel Macron launched a number of foreign policy initiatives on difficult issues, involving Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and Libya. This was about putting France back on the foreign policy map, after the presidency of François Hollande, which was widely considered as diplomatically wasted.
In French political terms, the issue is whether these initiatives will produce successes or will remain as mere visibility stunts. In European political terms, the issue is whether any of these initiatives will be conducted at the purely French level or at the European Union (EU) level, at a time when EU institutions have seen their role reduced by the Lisbon Treaty. For any French president, the temptation will inevitably be to prioritize France’s driving role rather than favoring that of the EU.
Concerning the Middle East in particular, the region has been a grave for multiple diplomatic initiatives where prestigious politicians ended up being badly burned. As a Frenchman, I want to believe that Mr. Macron will play it smarter and better. Unfortunately the odds are against him—and against any Western politician for that matter—given Russia’s demonstration of force in Syria after September 2015 and at a time when the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians has steadily deteriorated. That is why an EU dimension might give more weight to Mr. Macron’s initiatives.
Joseph Bahout | Visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East program and a former consultant with the Center for Analysis, Forecasting, and Strategy at the French Foreign Ministry
If the question is “Will Emmanuel Macron strive to expand France’s presence in the Middle East?” the answer would be a definitive “yes.” After only three months in power, Macron has at least four strong positions or initiatives focused on the broader Middle East.
They are: His position toward the Western Sahara conflict; controversial and ambiguous statements on Syria, mixed with reassurances; a timid but high-level attempt at mediating between Qatar and its adversaries in the Gulf; and a highly visible summit on Libya, signaling a French desire to take the lead in resolving one of the most intricate crises in the region.
The French leader is resolutely on the side of activism in his political action, and his clearly expressed aim is to position himself in the tradition of presidents such as Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand, who left a strong imprint on France’s international affairs. The Middle East and North Africa are the nearest backyard where France can play such a role effectively, and domestic French opinion would support this, if anything because this would be perceived as having a direct link to the anti-terrorism struggle and the security of French citizens.
It is thus expected that Macron will continue to explore a greater role on the Middle Eastern scene. As to whether he will succeed, he should remember, as he embarks on the rocky road ahead, Charles de Gaulle’s admission that he often approached the complicated Middle East with ideas that were too simple.