The mediation of Emmanuel Macron in the Hariri affair confirms France’s desire to play a central role in the Middle East. The principles of the diplomatic posture of Paris are regularly hammered by the French president’s advisers.
France speaks to everyone – be it Saudis or Iranians – and does not have to take sides in the struggle for influence in the region. In this context, the Lebanese crisis was a promising test case for the French president who was able to deploy all his talent as a diplomat.
If Emmanuel Macron has got involved in this, it is because Lebanon remains the main gateway to French influence in the Levant and that Saudi Arabia was promoted by his predecessor Francois Hollande to the rank of strategic partner. Paris could not stay away from a case involving two of its main allies in the region.
To settle the Hariri case, President Macron was able to engage with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with whom he speaks frankly. Apparently, the two men have good chemistry and, according to a diplomat, even exchange text messages on their phones.
This is not surprising considering they are both young leaders belonging to the same generation and yet embody political succession in their respective countries. Thanks to this successful mediation, Emmanuel Macron scored points. This is an indisputable personal success that France had not known for a long time.
Seen from Paris, accumulation of crises that pile up and feed off each other, increases the risk of a destructive embrace for the entire regionChristian Chesnot
However, beyond this timely intervention, the president is doing a tight balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran. His bet is to have the ear of both Riyadh and Tehran. Is it possible? But above all, is it tenable?
The Iranians are furious that France has put on the table the question of Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program as well as the influence of Tehran in the region.
On the other hand, French president has sent several messages to the Saudi leadership suggesting that Paris does not wish to call into question the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal and especially does not share the anti-Iranian approach with Riyadh.
France thinks that it is today in an ideal position to try to make reason, pragmatism and realism prevail. Will it be heard though? Faced with an unpredictable American president, there is certainly room for Paris to play a different tune.
“France is available”, the Elysee repeats. Seen from Paris, accumulation of crises that pile up and feed off each other, increases the risk of a destructive embrace for the entire region.
Realistically, the current priority of French diplomacy remains the stability of Lebanon. Paris wants to “distance” the country from Cedar regional crises, because in the current highly volatile context, nobody has interest in its destabilization.
As a firefighter diplomat, this is the message that Emmanuel Macron repeats to all the Lebanese parties, but also to Teheran and Riyadh. To match the words with action, the French president also intends to organize an international aid conference for Lebanon in Paris next year.
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.