Since his inauguration at the Elysée on May 14th, French President Emmanuel Macron has gradually unveiled his foreign policy, particularly regarding relations between France and the Arab world.
Following his interactions with French ambassadors at the end of August, the broad contours and priorities of his foreign policy have started to emerge.
Substantive changes in policy
The changes are not superficial but are substantive. Macron has clearly laid out his fundamental premise: the security of the French people as the raison d'être of French diplomacy. He has also clearly designated the enemy: ISIS and Islamist terrorism.
Thus, he can now frame his ‘doctrine’ on various related issues involving Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya based on two key terms: “realism and pragmatism”, or as his political opponents might dub it “cynicism and opportunism”.
Emmanuel Macron wants a more balanced French diplomacy between its traditional allies of the Gulf and TehranChristian Chesnot
Basically, Emmanuel Macron based his vision from a simple but harsh observation: France’s role in the Middle East, which is strategically of immense importance for the country, has been in a steady state of decline. The young French president seems to have learnt the lessons of the Arab revolutions well. The sermonizing and self-righteous diplomacy of his predecessors, Sarkozy and Hollande, did not allow France to weigh in on the course of events in the Middle East. The Syrian crisis is the most illustrative example of the failure of the Quai d'Orsay and the Elysée in the region.
Macron wants to set the record straight. Henceforth, the French president explained, “we must seek to end this war”. Excluded from the Astana process, Paris wants to get back in the game. The Elysee does not consider the departure of Bashar Al-Assad a prerequisite. At the next UN General Assembly in New York in mid-September, France will propose the formation of a contact group on Syria, involving the main actors in the conflict. Will Iran take part? That is the main issue.
Since his election, Emmanuel Macron wants a more balanced French diplomacy between its traditional allies of the Gulf and Tehran. Paris does not intend to arbitrate the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites but rather to play the role of an intermediary, “the honest broker”. The same policy applies to the Qatari crisis. Macron wants to talk to everyone, not naively but frankly.
We recognize Nicolas Sarkozy’s tropism for Qatar and François Hollande's for Saudi Arabia. But the new French president wants to take the high road and does not want to commit himself to any camp. On the whole, he has fixed his objective in the region: to obtain a level of transparency that curbs all forms of terror financing.
When it comes to Libya, Macron again makes a point of speaking to all parties, whether it be with Prime Minister Sarraj or Field Marshal Hafter. Just as in the Syrian case, Paris wants to get into motion and will try at the UN General Assembly to push for the application of the roadmap approved at Le Celle-Saint-Cloud in July by the two Libyan officials.
Reversion to ‘Gaullo-Mitterrandism’
More important, the newly formulated French foreign policy seems less likely to give lessons in ethics than the previous two dispensations. It will base itself on facts and the inter-relation of forces on the ground and shall no longer focus on giving moral prescriptions or gaining brownie points. Again, what stands out for Macron is the fight against Islamist terrorism. Hence, his renewed financial and military support to Iraq and Lebanon, two countries in the front line against the Islamist militants.
Can the Macron “doctrine” produce results? Only future will tell. The French president feels that he has a task at hand. The circumstances for a new role for France seem propitious. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin share Macron’s anti-terror agenda. One might say that the new French president reverts to a form of ‘Gaullo-Mitterrandism’. It is a diplomatic approach adopted earlier by General de Gaulle and François Mitterrand which has long allowed France to make its voice heard from Moscow to Washington and has resonated with local and regional actors as well. In sum, it is a policy of proving useful for resolving crises.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.
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