Mediterranean Connections

Emmanuel Macron and the Middle East

By Jean-Charles Zurawicki

In the past few weeks, political developments in the Middle East have added pressure to governments in the region. Long-standing civil war in Syria and Yemen, combined with the ongoing isolation of Qatar, the stalled Kurdistan independence movement, corruption purges in Saudi Arabia, and most prominently the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri have all complicated a region increasingly divided along Iran-Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Russia rivalries. Ineffective attempts at resolving conflicts vis-à-vis international organizations, and the novelty of sprouting disagreements, leave a vacuum for wise and tact diplomacy to resolve these issues. These opportunities may be overlooked in a United States stifling its own diplomatic abilities and resources, but this is bounty for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking to reframe France’s standing in the world and its role in the Middle East.

In August of 2016, then French President François Hollande outlined France’s priorities in the region, centered on ending the Syrian Civil War, standing by the Iran Nuclear Deal, combatting terrorism, and backing a negotiated two-state solution. While on the campaign trail there was little debate on the Middle East (or foreign policy in general), Emmanuel Macron’s campaign followed many of the same goals of the past administration. Early on, however, Macron seemed to have an eye on the Middle East, making it a point to visit Jordan and Lebanon even before his election in May 2017.

Since coming to office, Macron has followed a policy he terms “Gaullo-mitterandisme”: a vague mix of realism, French exceptionalism, and openness to negotiation. In addition to his invented doctrine, Macron has also been defined by a rhetorical principle often uttered by him in the campaign. As in domestic issues, Macron has offered a dual foreign policy platform, being a proponent of one solution en même temps (“at the same time”) seriously considering the alternative. Macron of course will also be influenced by more established figures in French politics, and is reported to be meeting regularly with former Foreign Ministers Hubert Védrine and Dominique de Villepin. French defense policy, however, is more obscure, as Macron’s circles contain both humanitarian interventionists and realists vying for influence.

What one can thus expect from French foreign policy for the next half-decade is a commitment to international organizations (partly in response to United States’s retreat), a growing presence of France in diplomatic talks, and a greater openness to working with states and issues formerly sidelined. In regards to the Middle East, Macron has pushed hard for France to be a necessary invitee at negotiation tables. Meeting with the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani in September, Macron requested the embargo on Qatar to be withdrawn. After the Kurdistan Independence Referendum, France offered to mediate between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government. And in the mystery of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Al-Hariri’s resignation, Macron has also chipped in, inviting Al-Hariri to France and commenting that “it’s important that [Hariri] is able to advance the political process in his country in the coming days and weeks.”

But Macron’s en même temps tendencies still ring through in policy towards the region. Macron has called for Iraqi unity, while paradoxically asking for the recognition of the rights of the Kurdish people. Macron hopes to be a diplomatic voice within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but remains wishy washy in his messaging. In regards to Syria, Macron envisages a transition of power after the civil war, though it is unclear where Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad lies within it. While French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian has complemented what other French officials’ opinions on removing Al-Assad from power, Macron has also acknowledged that Al-Assad is not a direct enemy of France. Macron hopes to see a legitimate successor for leading Syria, but slim pickings question France’s previously strict approach to Al-Assad’s removal. But as stated by the French president on November 17, 2017, “the role of France is to talk to everyone.” So while specific policy measures may remain elusive, Macron is nevertheless succeeding in growing France’s presence in regional diplomacy. In the absence of strong American leadership in the region, Macron may indeed revitalize French foreign relations in the region and globally pronounce France’s soft and hard power, if indecision does not wear the president down.

Jean-Charles Zurawicki is a senior at Tufts University studying International Relations and History.