Has France lost all relevance in Middle East?
Ismail Numan Telci
French foreign policy failures in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria have greatly diminished its role in the Middle East.
Once a significant player in the Middle East, particularly during the first half of the 20th century, France became a low profile actor for the rest of the century. Its drawback started with the independence of French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia and continued with a less traumatic retreat from the Levant.
French influence over Lebanon and Syria has diminished as other regional and global actors, such as Iran, the United States and Russia filled the vacuum.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 represent another turning point for what’s left of France’s influence in the Middle East. Unexpected regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were a serious source of concern with regards to France’s diminishing role in the region.
To prevent a total loss in the Middle East, Paris was quick to react in Libya by initiating a NATO offensive against the Gaddafi regime. France’s policy toward Egypt was also in a similar vein.
When the democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi was toppled in Egypt, France was one of the first countries that rushed to embrace the military leader, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, to secure political and economic gains.
Despite their efforts over the last five years, France has not able to achieve its policy objectives to expand its influence in the Middle East. This has become more visible, particularly in the last year.
The events last year in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and most recently in Syria have all contributed to the diminishing influence of France. It is worth taking a closer look at how a once giant political power became irrelevant.
Historically, France has been one of the most influential foreign actors in Algerian politics. This trend has shifted over the past two decades, particularly with regards to different branches of state institutions such as military, bureaucracy and the security apparatus. A negative perception of France by different sectors of Algerian society has not ceased to grow. Nationalism has been on the rise in academia, notably in the Arabic media.
The fall of ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika following widespread protests that started in February 2019 also dealt another blow to French influence in the country. Protesters harboured strong anti-France sentiments and called for less interference in Algerian political and social life.
Protesters also blamed Paris for many of the problems that Algeria faces today. The post-revolutionary political actors have been forced to distance themselves from France or risk political suicide through an association with the former colonial oppressor.
Another place where France has failed to achieve its political objectives is in Libya. France recently increased its support for the rogue military commander Khalifa Haftar, who aims to establish a military regime in Libya. Haftar’s forces have been conducting violent assaults to take over the internationally recognised government in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The most recent initiative in this regard started in April 2019 with the support of Egypt, the UAE and France.
In May 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Haftar in Elysee Palace. French military personnel were operating drones that bombed civilian and military targets in Tripoli, anti-tank missiles belonging to the French army were found in Haftar’s military bases.
Despite military and political assistance from France, Haftar’s operation against Tripoli failed. This was a massive blow to their policy in Libya and will likely endanger any role or influence they have in Libya’s future as political actors in the country will refuse any cooperation with France.
Tunisia is another North African country where we will see a less influential France. This can be observed from the results of the recent elections. The October 2019 presidential and parliamentarian elections in Tunisia resulted in an outcome that France would hardly prefer. The constitutional law professor Kais Saied defeated the media tycoon Nabil Karoui, who is known for his close relationship with political and business circles in France.
Although it cannot be expected that Saied will take a position directly against France, it can be said that the people who voted for him will likely favour a less influential France in Tunisian politics. The result of the parliamentary election was also a nightmare scenario for France. The outcome of the election was a clear win for the Ennahda movement, an organisation heavily targeted by the Ben Ali regime that had strong support from Paris. It’s not a stretch to predict that Ennahda’s political priorities will not include having “good relations” with France.
A final blow to France’s Middle East policy comes on the Syria front. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has affected France’s political objectives as well as investments in Syria.
As France has benefited significantly from the PYD/YPG’s illegal oil exports in northern Syria, Paris has also played the role of “protector” for the terrorist organisation. French cement factory Lafarge built production facilities in northern Syria, which provided a huge amount of cement for the terrorist organisation that have been used to build underground tunnels to attack Turkish Armed Forces, accor-ding to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
French leadership has been particularly aggressive against Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, and French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to be one of those leaders most riled up by the Turkish Operation. The traditional players in the Middle East’s politics are no longer in a position to dictate their agendas to political leaderships across the region. The clearest example of this is France.
As political developments unfold, the influence of France as a key external player in Middle East politics has been diminishing, and the policies and concerns of Paris are becoming less relevant to regional leaderships. Traditional powers like France have to reconsider their foreign policy toward in the Middle East if they wish to remain relevant actors.