On Feb. 7 and 8, France hosted the “Mediterranean Worlds Forum” in Marseille. This forum follows on the heels of the 2019 “Summit of the Two Shores, Mediterranean Forum,” organized at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. These meetings incorporated the 5+5 dialogue format, with the stated goal of “giving new momentum” to relations in the western Mediterranean. Above all, the Summit of the Two Shores illustrates Paris’s push to renew its leadership role in the Mediterranean, a space where France enjoys many advantages, but also faces many challenges.

In recent decades, France has been at the forefront of several initiatives focused on the Mediterranean, spearheading the 1995 launch of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership (aka “the Barcelona process”) as well as the 2008 creation of the Union for the Mediterranean. These initiatives, in their failure to significantly bolster partnerships across the Mediterranean, have fallen short of their lofty ambitions. With the conflicts in Libya and Syria, the last decade presented grave challenges for the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. France, which sees itself as a Mediterranean power, seeks to overcome these obstacles to reinvigorate its presence and influence in the areas to its south. In January 2018, President Macron announced from Tunis his desire to forge a new Mediterranean policy, which culminated in the Summit of the Two Shores.

Like its predecessors, the Summit of the Two Shores frames the Mediterranean as “a sea of all opportunities” and an arena for devising joint solutions to shared challenges. Mirroring the scope of the Union for the Mediterranean, the Summit of the Two Shores focuses on identifying practical solutions to technical issues, such as water management and urban development.

While predicated on the 5+5 dialogue format, the Summit of the Two Shores process embraces a more consultative approach that enthusiastically welcomes contributions from civil society. The Mediterranean Worlds Forum brought together civil society actors from both sides of the Mediterranean to discuss and devise concrete solutions to shared challenges. Inspired by the priorities set out at the Summit of the Two Shores, the forum focused on: environment and biodiversity; education and mobility; inclusion and solidarity; employment and entrepreneurship; culture and heritage; and territorial action and sustainable development. The emphasis on civil society simultaneously aims to overcome the political gridlock that has traditionally derailed intra-Mediterranean projects and to expand their reach and visibility.

President Macron addressed the forum via video, as events in Ukraine prevented his physical attendance. Macron stated that his initiative seeks to, among other things, challenge negative perceptions of the Mediterranean as a space plagued by economic stagnation and geopolitical upheaval. During the forum, the French president announced the launch of three initiatives:

  1. A €100 million fund for entrepreneurs living in France who want to invest in the Maghreb;
  2. A €3 million fund, to be managed by French Development Agency (AFD), dedicated to the initiatives of civil society actors on the southern shore of the Mediterranean; and
  3. A “Mediterranean Talent Academy” open to entrepreneurs, artists, students, and researchers.

With the first round of the French presidential election set for April 10, Macron didn’t miss the opportunity to address a key electorate — the Maghrebi diaspora in France. The issue of immigration looms large in this electoral cycle. Knowing this, Macron used his speech to highlight and emphasize the diaspora’s contribution to French society. Moreover, he denounced those who cast doubt on French dual-nationals’ loyalty and call on them to forsake a part of their identity to be truly French. Macron is drawing a stark contrast with the likes of Eric Zemmour, a far-right candidate who has gone as far as calling for the revival of an 1803 law forcing French parents to name their children after Catholic saints.

The question of mobility in the Mediterranean area featured heavily at the forum. President Macron referenced the need to ensure easier mobility throughout the region, but also underlined “everyone's right and need to protect their borders.” This call for increased mobility, however, belies Paris’s dramatic toughening of its visa policy to pressure Maghrebi countries into enhanced cooperation on migrant return. In September, Paris reduced the number of visas available for nationals of Morocco and Algeria by half and for Tunisians by one-third, a move met with dismay in the Maghreb. While irregular migration certainly poses challenges for France, visa restrictions penalize those who opt for a legal path to migration. More significantly, such restrictions create tensions between France and the very countries it seeks to engage.

The visa issue comes on top of other challenges to France’s position on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. As recently as October, Algeria recalled its ambassador to France and closed its airspace to French military planes in protest of what it described as “inadmissible interference” in its domestic affairs by Macron. The move followed remarks by the French president, reported by the newspaper Le Monde, in which Macron was quoted as saying that Algeria was ruled by a “political-military system” and questioning the existence of an Algerian nation before French colonization. More generally, despite France’s strong historical ties to elites in many countries of the southern Mediterranean and across the African continent, it has seen its soft power decline in these regions, hence its effort to rebrand itself throughout the Mediterranean and Africa to rehabilitate its image and regain its clout.

There is a lot at stake for France in the Mediterranean — an area that the former colonial power has long seen as its direct and natural sphere of influence. As France seeks to revive its role in this region, it competes with other European actors, including Germany and Italy, and global powers like China. Perhaps more importantly, in recent years, France has faced mounting competition from Turkey, an emerging regional actor. This power rivalry has manifested in multiple contexts, including Syria and Libya. A dispute over access to energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean has ramped up tensions between the two countries. France, which posits itself as “the keeper and defender of European leadership,” is concerned about the rise of Turkey, which can challenge the influence of traditional European actors in the Mediterranean and undermine their interests. France thus seeks to reverse the weakening of its status in the region, preserve its interests, and reduce threats to French and European leadership in the Mediterranean.

 

Tasnim Abderrahim is a policy analyst focusing on migration, decentralization and local governance, and EU-North Africa relations. She is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s North Africa and the Sahel Program. The views expressed in this piece are her own.

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