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France reelected incumbent Emmanuel Macron on April 24, granting him another five year term to pursue his foreign policy and expand France’s influence in the Middle East and North Africa. With a new mandate from the French, experts say Macron can do more to support non-authoritarian actors in the region.
Macron initially declared an intent to focus his Middle East and North Africa policy on human rights. But quickly gave up any sense of human rights standards in exchange for collaborating heavily with dictators and autocrats. During Macron’s first term, France sought to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and conducted an $18 billion arms deal with the United Arab Emirates while the Gulf nations were being repeatedly accused of war crimes against Yemeni civilians. Macron also initially labeled Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a dictator before later granting him the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor.
“France has quite an important prestige in Egypt for historical reasons,” Dr. Hamit Bozarslan, the Director of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, told Fanack. “When you see what is happening there concerning the human rights situation, it is absolutely dramatic.”
This will be abundantly clear to Macron following the arrival of the Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath to France. Shaath spent 900 days in pre-trial detention and was forced to renounce his Egyptian citizenship prior to being released and flown to France to reunite with his wife.
While Macron’s Middle East policy may leave a lot to be desired, Bozarslan said the fault is not his alone. A European ally could go a long way to helping Macron support more democratic, revolutionary, or alternative movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
“The inconsistencies of Macron are not only the inconsistency of France or Macron himself. These inconsistencies are also that of the European Union,” Bozarslan said. “The European Union is politically almost insignificant in the Middle East. It is a very important economic power, but it does not have a foreign policy.”
Macron’s vision for the region was not enthusiastically endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the time, and it is unlikely to win the support of her successor, Olaf Scholz. Meanwhile, Macron has had to cope with the ramifications of a post-Brexit Britain led by Boris Johnson, as well as the turbulent Trump years on a global scale.
Despite these challenges, Macron was able to achieve significant headway in the Middle East in several areas. He was the first French president to proclaim the country’s colonial past a crime against humanity and to commission an inquiry on the country’s history in Algeria, including the Algerian War, despite detractors calling the report a “whitewash.”
“He went much further than any president concerning France and its colonial past,” Bozarslan said.
Macron also demonstrated “leadership on humanitarian access in Syria and the fight against impunity for the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s government,” according to Human Rights Watch.
His aspirations have appeared progressive at times, with the goal of forging meaningful ties, particularly with nations that were formerly part of the worldwide empire. However, as his tenure progressed, Macron reverted to a more familiar policy concerning the MENA region.
“There was a return 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,” Dr. Ziad Majed, the Elliott E. Burdette Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Paris, told Fanack before the April 24 election.
In this effect, Macron could feasibly do a lot more to foster goodwill in the region and in the area of human rights. One example Bozarslan points to is Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia has conducted over 800 airstrikes since March 2015, according to a Yemeni human rights organization. The UN human rights council voted against extending an independent investigation into potential war crimes in Yemen after Saudi Arabia put pressure on officials to vote the resolution down, the Guardian reported in December 2021.
“France has not condemned the intervention of the Emirates and the Saudis in Yemen,” Bozarslan said. “France can do much more as a symbolic community [for the region] and much more by inviting the European Union [‘s involvement].”
There are few expectations that Macron’s policy or approach toward the Middle East and North Africa would shift as he begins his second term. Macron’s engagement with dictators and anti-democratic groups may benefit France in the short term, but if he can persuade regional actors to respect human rights, the region’s people may have something to look forward to. Macron, on the other hand, may need to enlist the help of like-minded European partners to achieve his goals.
“In a country like France – which is a small country or a medium power – you cannot have a fully independent and efficient foreign policy, neither in the Middle East nor elsewhere,” Bozarslan said. “You need to either be [in line] with American foreign policy [or] the European Union has to have a vision.”
While Macron’s vision will undoubtedly be closer to that of the Biden administration than that of the Trump presidency, he may benefit from a European ally to match his regional aspirations. Nevertheless, Macron owes it to the people of the Middle East to use his authority to defend human rights and democracy rather than increasing connections with dictators.