A successful and warm-hearted trip to the UAE last month, a well-timed stop at Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, and active participation to resolve the Lebanese political crisis. These are just some of the aspects of France’s new outreach to the Middle East. Events in the recent few months have led many political observers to claim that “France is back in the Middle East”.
It is undeniably a deserved success for French President Emmanuel Macron — and deep satisfaction for the French people, to note that the talk of France is heard again in the region. Owing to the lack of motivation of his predecessor as well as the overtly pro-Israeli diplomatic action of the previous Foreign Affairs Minister of France, things are now set to change. Indeed French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to set things right from the day he assumed the presidency. Taking advantage of the right circumstances, he has been making the right decisions in a region that is significant — politically as well as economically for France.
Several shortcomings of United States President Donald Trump’s foreign policy also explain it. Since he has been in office, Trump has been stymied by a lack of consistent policy and unpredictability. Beyond his personal character traits (egocentrism, stubbornness, dependency on Twitter and over-reaction etc), many key policy issues are still waiting in the wings to be solved. Among the worse remains Trump’s disinterest in international affairs. It is good for no one, indeed, when the head of the most powerful nation continues to behave in an inarticulate way. A smart and well-informed gentleman such as Macron, who is subtle enough to understand diplomacy, listens to the people, to avoid populism. The French president exudes ‘real’ charisma — be it on his recent trip to Africa, or his charm offensive in the Middle East. He appears to be the right man for the right moment.
While Trump maintains a solid position in his core base, his family has assumed many ‘significant’ roles in the White House’s global outreach. The role of Jared Kushner, whose pro-Israeli intermission is no more secret, may signify the changed nature of America’s diplomatic nature. It is all the more surprising that concrete results have led so far to the exact opposite of what he was looked for. Has the Middle East, for instance, gained in stability over the last year? Has Trump put forward a credible and coherent policy for containing Iran? There was a time when Arab wisdom regarding regional conflicts was in two parts: Living in peace with its neighbours, defusing tensions and despite Israel’s aggressive policy, achieve the goal of finding a fair solution to the Palestinian drama; and if nothing of that succeeded and threats remained unacceptably high, then contemplate taking action with the full support of the international community.
Among the ways to manage a growing conflict between two camps, one is indeed to go on exerting all diplomatic efforts, rely upon friendly countries and multilateral institutions’ efforts to keep on talking to everybody. Another one is to antagonise the parties, trying and spreading a conflict over other countries, pushing them to adopt unbearable positions which cannot but lead to war — see the 2002 war in Iraq, and its consequences. Pushing the Arabs in a corner over the Palestinian issue may not work in the long run, especially when the sympathy of most countries and international institutions lie with the aggrieved party (Palestinains). That is why the world needs more power centres.
This also brings us back to the main theme: Is France coming back to the Middle East? Partly, probably yes, provided the country resists active lobbies. An interesting characteristic of President Macron is to keep the dialogue open with all parties. International relationships are not short-term. Trump is not going to be in office forever. Similarly, the European political space will change with France and other key nations getting a much bigger say (let us not forget that German political uncertainties and Brexit will not be a permanent fixture). On the contrary, what is for sure is the ‘coming back’ of Israel in the game, an unbelievably strengthened position fed by some irrational fears, search for personal benefits, inability to break out of a binary reasoning and the total forgetfulness of a once cherished cause — the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to live on their own land. But who would care for a distressed Palestinian youth when the time to think big passes?
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at Iris (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques) and the ‘Faco’ Law University of Paris.