Macron’s Presidency and the Middle East

By Przemysław Osiewicz | Visiting Fellow - The Middle East Institute | May 24, 2017
Macron’s Presidency and the Middle East

The election of Emmanuel Macron is certainly bad news for terrorist organizations in the Middle East. At the same time, it is unlikely that France will modify its attitude in regards to larger regional challenges, for instance, the ongoing Syrian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Yet, as a devoted supporter of European integration, Macron will certainly try to promote the French perspective on Middle Eastern affairs among his key E.U. partners, especially Germany and Italy, and at the same time strengthen the influence of France and the European Union in the region.

If the Trump administration continues to minimize the U.S. role in the Middle East and North Africa, Emmanuel Macron would be eager to fill this vacuum on his terms. Although he criticizes the French colonial past, he wants France to be present and play a constructive role in regional affairs.

Macron is also not the kind of enemy terrorist groups would prefer to have. Undoubtedly, the election of Marine Le Pen would have fed the radical narratives of Islamic extremists, and enable them to recruit more followers in Europe. Her harsh opinions were in line with the extremists’ perspective, according to which the current turmoil in the Middle East is a clear consequence of a colonial past, cultural antagonism, and religious intolerance fuelled by Western powers, including France.

Although Macron’s statements thus far indicate that his stance on anti-terrorist operations will be firm, and in line with his predecessor, Francois Hollande, Macron’s rhetoric will be far less provocative compared to the radical position of Marine Le Pen. On this basis, he will be able to strengthen his image of president of the entire French nation and decrease the high social polarization. Macron’s inclusive policies may appear to be the best recipe for domestic success, and significantly reduce the social influence of both right-wing and Islamist radical groups.  

It is almost certain that Macron will do his best to promote his political ideas related to the Middle East at the European level. For the time being, he can count on support of German chancellor Angela Merkel as well as key E.U. officials, including Donald Tusk and Jean Claude Juncker, who openly supported his candidacy during the election campaign. In return, he will try to strengthen E.U. diplomacy and assure that the European voice is heard on the global stage.

Such an attitude may not be warmly welcomed by the current American administration. President Donald Trump prefers to see European partners as a group of nation-states rather than as a well-organized bloc of countries that can challenge U.S. diplomacy and interests in the region.

The outcome of the French presidential elections will not affect France’s stance on the Syrian conflict. Macron will support E.U. diplomacy and occasionally undertake unilateral actions if Syrian territory is a source of any direct threat to French national security (like in 2015). At the same time, France will support the United States in its efforts to restore peace and guarantee protection of human rights in Syria. Macron welcomed the surgical strikes of the United States after the chemical attack against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun.

By contrast, Macron’s France will not be an easy partner for Russia and may continue to oppose Moscow’s initiatives related to the Syrian conflict, including the Astana process. The differences between the Russian and French approaches date back to the beginning of the Syrian war. It is unlikely that the French will support Russia, Turkey, and Iran taking full control over the political process in Syria. Rather, they will seek closer cooperation with the United States and other allies on this matter. Macron will do his best to make sure that no ‘Astana process’ replaces the ‘Geneva process,’ and that a future peace agreement will be based on Euroatlantic rather than Eurasian principles.

While France will probably go cooperate with the United States in case of Syria, Macron will not be as pro-Israeli as the Trump administration. Even if Paris does not take sides on Israel-Palestine conflict officially, it is not a secret that its previous actions and policies favored Palestinians. In 2012, France voted in favor of a Palestinian application for an upgrade of its status to a non-member observer in the U.N. General Assembly. A few years later, the French parliament warned Israel that it would recognize the State of Palestine if negotiations failed. However, Macron openly says that his priority is to create an atmosphere that will enable a peace process. He is also against any premature recognition of Palestine. Moreover, like in Syria, Macron will probably opt for a more coherent as well as constructive E.U. stance on the conflict.

Last but not least, there is little doubt that Macron will not share Trump’s stocktaking related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and will likely oppose any non-nuclear related sanctions. The motivation for such a position is purely economic. Unlike the United States, France is among the biggest beneficiaries of the agreement with Iran. Some French economic giants signed lucrative contracts with their Iranian counterparts as early as 2015. Among them are Total, France’s state railway company S.N.C.F., Peugeot-Citroen, Vinci S.A., and Airbus. During President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to France in January 2016, both countries signed contracts worth more than $33 billion. For this obvious reason, Macron will not be willing to renegotiate the deal, let alone repeal it, unless Tehran’s actions are in clear violation of the J.C.P.O.A. or pose a threat to the French national security.

All in all, there may be more divergent than convergent interests between France and the United States in the Middle East. Trump, thus, may find it hard to have “very, very good deals” with his French counterpart.