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When the centrist Emmanuel Macron assumed the French presidency in 2017, he preached a policy based on human rights and “the end of a form of neo-conservatism imported into France for ten years.” As he runs for reelection against the far right candidate Marine Le Pen on April 24, his impact on the Middle East has been largely uninspiring.
“There was no consistency in his [Middle East and North Africa] policy,” Dr. Ziad Majed, the Elliott E. Burdette Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Paris, told Fanack, adding that it either was not his top priority or derailed due to the pandemic, the Gillet Jaunes protests, or the Ukraine war.
“There was a return more to a traditional approach to the Middle East where stability might be more important than following political dynamics, social dynamics, examining aspirations of societies of political actors that are in the opposition,” Majed said.
In January 2019, Macron criticized Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his human rights record. Fast forward to December 2020 and Sisi was greeted on an official visit to Paris where Macron said arm sales would not be connected to human rights preconditions.
Under Le Pen, France’s policy to the Middle East would likely take that trend further. She has said she would normalize relations with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and used pro-Assad talking points in her rationale for that decision. Under Macron’s watch, France built stronger relations with the United Arab Emirates. She is also expected to further strengthen those ties with the United Arab Emirates – whose leader recently met with Assad – which could mean less cooperation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“[The UAE is an] important actor that is very dynamic today and intervening in different theaters of operations, spending lots of money trying to build new alliances and networks mainly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Majed said, adding that the UAE is working to suppress revolutionary movements calling for change throughout the region.
The UAE is France’s second largest trading partner in the region and is a big buyer of French weapons, purchasing over 4.7 billion euros worth of arms between 2011 and 2020. Under Macron, the UAE and France were also partners in supporting General Khalifa Hafter in Libya and France seems to have taken the Emirates’ side in their regional dispute with Turkey.
Macron currently maintains a healthy lead in all polls, with an average of 56 percent of the vote. But his win over Le Pen from 2017 saw him receive 66 percent of the vote, indicating a significant drop in support. Still, Macron is expected to be the first French presidential incumbent reelected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Should that lead somehow disintegrate, Majed said Le Pen could bring about few dramatic changes. However, one arena that could experience a strong shift is relations in the Maghreb.
Macron unsuccessfully tried to improve relations with Algeria, a country that fought to free itself from France’s brutal colonial rule in a war from 1954 to 1962.
“In Algeria, the regime in place doesn’t want [a new page with France] because they keep using the French colonial legacy as one reason for justifying most of their policies and actions,” Majed said. “So it’s not only Macron’s failure, it is also on the other side.”
Le Pen, meanwhile, hinted at improving relations with Morocco and Tunisia and a harder line on Algeria. Her hardline on immigration and naturalization would most likely impact people from France’s former colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa the most.
In the Levant, Macron has tried to play an important role in Lebanon as a gateway to wider influence across the Middle East.
“He perceived Lebanon not only as the country where France has lots of cultural and historical links and attachments, but also as a bridge to the whole Middle East where France could play a different role since it is the only actor capable of talking to the Iranians, but also to the Saudis, to the Emiratis and to the Qataris,” Majed said.
Despite his ambitious plans, Macron’s plans for the region have not been as effective as he may have hoped. Macron’s intervention was allegedly crucial in helping free former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri from detention in Saudi Arabia – an act that may have complicated his relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Macron was however also the first western leader to visit MBS following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Macron visited Beirut shortly after the August 4, 2020 explosion with a dramatic showing and promises to help the Lebanese with providing aid that would not go into the hands of their corrupt leaders. France under Macron also pledged over $119 million in aid to Lebanon a year after the blast.
Le Pen has promised to focus particularly on helping Lebanon – a country suffering from one of the world’s most severe economic crises and massive electricity shortages. But Majed believes Le Pen’s rhetoric on Lebanon is more likely aimed at a “certain Christian” and “traditional conventional electorate” that reduces the complexities of the Lebanese state to a bastion for Christians in the Middle East.
“I don’t think Le Pen could do more or could modify things,” Majed said about Le Pen’s potential changes to a Lebanon policy. “What Macron did was the maximum and she cannot go beyond that.”
In regard to relations with Palestine and Israel, Macron was largely viewed as a pro-Israeli president. While Macron recognized certain rights of Palestinians, he focused on the strong relationship between Israel and France. Le Pen would likely continue in that vein, if not further favoring Israel’s security over Palestinian rights.
“Historically, the far right in France, but also generally in Europe, is anti-Semitic but also very pro-Israeli,” Majed said. “They are anti-Semitic here, but they are pro-Israeli at the same time since they are far away and they are beating up Palestinians and Arabs.”
While Macron started his term with promises to rewrite history between France and the Middle East and North Africa, he’s largely failed to build a cohesive policy for the region. He’s fallen into a rhythm of working closely with autocratic rulers during his five years in power. Of course, should Le Pen usurp Macron, the trend of favoring strongmen seems likely to intensify. Neither figure may signal widespread improvements, though Le Pen’s promises to tighten relations with the UAE and Assad could further hinder any grassroots revolutionary or democratic movements in the region.