The concept of French ‘Arab Policy’ goes back 50 years, when General Charles de Gaulle decided to re-assess the Franco-Arab foreign relations after the Israeli attack of 1967 (Arab–Israeli War, also called An-Naksah) which led to the military occupation of Palestinian land — and Jerusalem. Some early signals had already emerged two years before, when De Gaulle announced France would recover her full sovereignty in quitting the integrated military command of Nato. The so-called French ‘Arab Policy’ would then be a diplomatic tool lasting 40 years — until former French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a serious blow to it.
To sum it up, the policy was globally defined as a balanced and independent way to look at world affairs; staying a reliable ally of the United States but not being subservient, and more precisely establishing close and confident relationship with each and every country in the Arab world. It also involved refraining from participating in internal conflicts and religious divides in the region. The backbone of the policy was the recognition of the inherent right of the Palestinian people to have a land of their own. Regarding Israel, the policy entailed a need to ensure that the country respected United Nations resolutions — and more generally the international law, as well as giving up the military conquests of 1967 along the borders that prevailed at that time. France sought to put a halt to any type of population displacement or illegal colonies on Palestinian lands.
Evoking that policy in 2018 — at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fossilising and the regional geopolitical environment is totally reshuffled in the wake of the war in Syria — may seem odd. Within less than a year, old alliances have disappeared to the benefit of unexpected new ones.
In Syria, the overwhelming position of Russia — and how it aligned with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, stares us in the face. The prolonged war in Syria has variously impacted the interest of the different players, namely the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Kurd fighters, ‘global’ terrorists (Al Qaida) and ‘local’ ones (Daesh).
Coming back to France’s outreach in the region; the last visible act of the French ‘Arab Policy’ was the decision of not going along with the irresponsible architects of the Iraq war. In fact the decision by Sarkozy to establish closer ties with Nato led to a closer reconciliation with the US. This was a step towards the absurd and criminal decision to participate with the United Kingdom towards a regime change in Libya.
Beyond brave and sensible decisions in the Sahel (mainly due to the French Army leaders), former French president Francois Hollande’s ‘Arab Policy’ was rather similar to what he did (or did not) internally: A kind of yo-yo between what reality was and what he would have liked it to be. The results are here today: Playing one Arab country against another, then changing the framework; and participating in internal divides in which the French have obviously nothing to do.
Is French President Emmanuel Macron going to change the path and revive a policy in which France would be a greater power than what she is today? There are some initial positive signals: Understanding the ground reality and calling a spade a spade, the reaffirmation to newcomers in foreign policy that France has historically played a positive role in several parts of the region and intends to go on doing so; the decision to talk to everybody — since the risk of conflicts are on the rise.
Yet, one cannot overrule years of policy paralysis. Look at the sad state of affairs in Syria, including the never-ending war as major players, including their backers, are unable to make any headway with attempted peace talks. It has come to a stage where key world powers, France included, are unsure of how one of the most devastating wars of this age is going to end. As if things were not already so messy in the Middle East, US President Donald Trump’s shocking decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has further frayed tempers in the region. The Palestinians are looking away from the US and there is a void at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. France’s diplomatic intervention in the region may just be what is required. Time may be ripe for Macron to revive a genuine French ‘Arab Policy’.
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at Iris (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques) and the Faco Law University, Paris.