Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

France’s politique arabe

Reviewed by David Tresilian

France’s politique arabe
France’s politique arabe
Al-Ahram Weekly

Does France have a recognisable policy towards the Arab world, asks journalist Ignace Dalle in his La Cinquième République et le monde arabe, a survey of French foreign policy towards the Arabs over the past half century.

France has long wanted to pursue an independent foreign policy toward the Arab world, that independence being chiefly from the United States. However, the country’s middle-ranking status in the world has meant that it has not always been able to conduct one consonant with its ambitions. There have also been disagreements over how far France can go it alone without taking the rest of Europe with it.

But while France has not always been able to achieve the results that it might have liked in relation to the Arab world, it still has perhaps the most extensive network of relationships of all the European states. France has retained particularly close relations with the countries of the Arab Maghreb, all of which use French as the language of business, administration and education. More students of Arab origin study in France than in any other European country, and France has long set itself the task not only of fostering Euro-Arab dialogue, but also of developing the Mediterranean as a common Euro-Arab space.

The country has retained an important voice in Syrian and Lebanese affairs, with many people of Lebanese origin living in France, and it is one of the only European countries to have taken independent initiatives to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. France also probably has more cultural influence in the Middle East than any other European country, exercising the kind of “soft power” that is sometimes thought to go with it. It has highly developed economic relations with many Arab states and gives extensive amounts of development assistance.

Earlier this year, it was announced that France would be building the third line of the Cairo metro system, adding to the two that it has already built. France will also be providing the Egyptian military with Rafale jet fighters and other items of equipment, helping to break Egypt’s dependence on US suppliers.

Ignace begins his survey in the generally unpromising 1950s. While France withdrew from Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, both former French protectorates, the presence of millions of European colonists in Algeria and the latter’s status as a French département, a part of metropolitan France, meant that a solution to its desire for independence was less easily found. The savage war of independence that raged in Algeria until 1962 damaged France’s relations with the Arab world, and French involvement in the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956 in alliance with Israel and Britain also severely affected its reputation.

Things started to change in the 1960s when president de Gaulle sought to normalise French relations with the Arab world, and it was during de Gaulle’s time in office that France started to pursue what for many was a recognisable politique arabe. De Gaulle himself helped to foster this impression, most famously in the wake of the 1967 War when France halted arms shipments to Israel and de Gaulle appeared on television to criticise Israel as “domineering and over-confident.”

“The tone of de Gaulle’s remarks and his often cutting criticisms of Israel … gave France a prestige that lasted for many years in the Arab world,” Dalle writes. However, the remarks, though cool towards Israel, were not particularly pro-Arab. They had more to do with de Gaulle’s desire to assert French independence and to avoid what he saw as the extension of the Cold War into the Middle East, with the US backing Israel and the former USSR backing the Arabs.

“At the heart of de Gaulle’s politics was national independence, and from this came his refusal of a bipolar world. This led him not only to defend the independence of the Arab states and Arab nationalism, but also to distance himself from Israel, seen as being too close to Washington,” Dalle comments.

The first part of this lengthy book looks at the policies of successive French presidents, de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy, with regard to the Arab world, while the second examines France’s relations with individual Arab states, focusing on the Maghreb. The enormous powers that the constitution of the Fifth Republic puts into the hands of the French president could be seen as justifying Dalle’s decision to write the history of the country’s foreign policy in terms of presidential preferences. Whatever the intentions of different French presidents may have been on entering office, he says, by the end of their tenure they shared a common “disenchantment.”

One theme that emerges is the desire of successive French presidents to defend French economic interests. In his chapter on the presidency of Georges Pompidou in the early 1970s, for example, Dalle recounts the story of a colossal French arms contract with Libya, signed a few years after the military coup led by the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Also in the Pompidou chapter is the beginning of the story of France’s commercial relations with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, during which former French president Jacques Chirac, prime minister at the time, took charge not only of selling French military hardware to the Iraqi regime, but also of negotiating the building of a French nuclear reactor.

Another theme, also beginning with Pompidou but gaining importance under the subsequent presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is France’s desire to take the lead in European dialogue with the Arab world, sometimes in cases where this counter-balances US policy. In the wake of the 1973 October War, Pompidou noted that the negotiations between Israel and Egypt, brokered by the US, were being carried out “without the slightest European involvement,” which went against “history, geography, every kind of involvement with the Mediterranean countries concerned, and essential economic interests.”

His desire to put forward an alternative European vision of Arab-Israeli relations irritated the then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “who did not intend to let the Europeans, and particularly not the French, play any role whatsoever in the eastern Mediterranean.” Under Giscard, France opposed the signature of a separate peace between Egypt and Israel, supported by the United States, and pressed instead for a general settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It pushed, too, for European relations with the Arab world to be based on more than “simply the price of oil and the recycling of petrodollars,” as Giscard put it, and instead to be concerned also with enhanced cultural, religious, and historical dialogue.

Such themes of commercial interests, European relations with the Arab world that were independent of US policy, and enhanced dialogue with the Arab world on the basis of a common Mediterranean civilisation were continued under subsequent presidents. Sometimes they seem to have largely disappeared, with Francois Mitterand, for example, French president in the 1980s, being generally happy to support both Israel and the United States. Sometimes they appear to have become more prominent, with Chirac, his successor, being more eager to promote an independent French voice in Middle Eastern affairs and to oppose the unipolar world favouring the United States.

Nevertheless, Mitterand sent French forces to help evacuate the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion. And Chirac’s 1996 Cairo speech, widely reported at the time, in which he spoke of his “vision of relations between France, Europe, the Arab world and the Mediterranean,” was widely criticised for its platitudinous lack of realism. Chirac’s foreign policy was characterised by what Dalle calls “Wilsonian Gaullism,” a reference to the ideas of US president Woodrow Wilson, since he argued for conflicts between countries to be resolved through appeals to international law. In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chirac’s France opposed US efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution that would have given explicit UN backing to the invasion, arguing instead for arbitration.

Dalle’s book contains a section on Sarkozy’s presidency, noting the latter’s general realignment of French foreign policy with that of the United States. Sarkozy’s flagship Middle Eastern initiative, the Union pour la Méditerranée, perhaps a continuation of earlier attempts to strengthen cultural relations across the Mediterranean, foundered as a result of its “lack of coherence” and managed to attract the hostility of both the other European and the Arab states. His enthusiastic support for the NATO-led bombing of Libya during the 2011 uprising, a quarter of the raids being carried out by French forces, led to “the implosion of the country into a mass of warring armed groups.”

The book contains no evaluation of French policy during the Arab Spring, some of which took place when the current French president, Francois Hollande, was in office, but Dalle thinks that part of the reason for the “improvisations, maladresses and incoherencies” that supervened during that period may have been because France had “got so used to dealing with people like al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Hassan II, Ben Ali, etc., that it could not imagine their ever disappearing from the political landscape.” Given the “moral position of France,” he adds, “much is expected of it” in the Arab world, and more could be achieved were France to make better use of its expertise, academic and otherwise, in Euro-Arab relations.

Outside the realm of inter-governmental contacts, France has the densest network of civil-society organisations working with and in the Arab world of any European country. Moreover, “there have never been more Arab students in France than there are today, and French higher education has never been more popular than it is today in the French-speaking Arab countries.” Perhaps the road towards improved Franco-Arab and European-Arab relations runs precisely through the development and generalisation of such individual contacts, fostered where appropriate by state and other institutions and building on a shared vision of the future Mediterranean. 

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