Is France reinventing itself as a kingmaker in the Middle East?

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    French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Elysee Palace [File: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

    France is pursuing an ambitious foreign policy under President Emmanuel Macron that seeks to restore Paris’ clout and influence in the Middle East, analysts have told Al Jazeera.

    In what marked a new phase in Macron’s presidency, France joined the United States and the UK on April 14 in dropping 105 bombs on three facilities in Syria said to be associated with the use of chemical weapons.

    Forty-year-old Macron, who in May 2017 became France’s youngest-ever president, said he “convinced” his US counterpart, Donald Trump, to carry out the attacks and stay in Syria “for the long term” after a suspected chemical weapons attack on the former rebel-held stronghold of Douma killed dozens of people, according to rescuers and medics.

    “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying the United States had a duty to disengage from Syria,” Macron told French TV channel BFM in a two-hour live interview.

    “We convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long-term.”

    Macron also said that he was willing to play the role of intermediary between the US and Russia – a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and find a “sustainable” political solution in Syria.

    He had previously offered to serve as an interlocutor in the long-running conflict and set up an international contact group to revive stalled peace talks in the Swiss city of Geneva.

    “France has managed to maintain relatively good ties with Russia, despite the high levels of tensions between Russia and the West,” Agathe Demarais, an analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

    “Macron plans to visit St Petersburg in June, where he will meet with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Russian army didn’t acknowledge the French participation to air strikes in Syria, probably in an effort to preserve France-Russia bilateral ties,” she said.

    But while Saturday’s attacks were his first major military decision since he came to office, it was not the first time the young leader intervened in conflicts and crises abroad.

    In his first major foreign policy speech after his inauguration, Macron said: “France is no longer in a situation, as it was in the mid-1970s, where it could say: ‘I’m a medium power, protected and supported by major powers that share the same values.’

    “France must become a great power again. That’s a necessity.”

    ‘Extremely opportunistic’

    Analysts said that in recent years, France has been quick to intervene militarily in conflicts in Africa – such as Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic – but has only recently become a major diplomatic force in the Middle East.

    “Macron is extremely opportunistic and is filling a void left by the US and the UK in the Middle East, positioning France as a playmaker in the region along with Russia,” said Olivier Guitta, the managing director of GlobalStrat, a geopolitical risk consultancy firm.

    Demarais agreed: “France will be keen to act as a power broker in the Middle East in the coming months.”

    Paris played an important role as mediator in November 2017 after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly resigned from office while visiting Saudi Arabia.

    Hariri blamed interference in Lebanon by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for his decision to step down, adding he feared an assassination attempt.  

    However, many analysts suspected Saudi Arabia pushed him to resign as punishment for his weak stance towards Hezbollah.

    Lebanese leaders, meanwhile, alleged that the Saudis were holding Hariri hostage, while Riyadh accused the Lebanese government of declaring war against it because of Hezbollah’s “aggression”.

    Macron hastily flew to the kingdom and held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to help restore the situation, and stressed “the importance of preserving the stability, independence and security of Lebanon”.

    A few weeks later, Hariri withdrew his resignation and resumed his post, which resulted in the political temperature dropping a notch.

    Macron’s mediation in Lebanon may not be surprising given that France takes a special interest in its former colony, but his eagerness to address other crises in the Middle East is emblematic of his desire to establish France as a leading power within the region, according to analysts.

    “Because of France’s extremely close relationship with the Hariri family, Macron positioned himself as a dealmaker and is gaining points on the geo-political board,” Guitta said.

    In December 2017, Macron hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after Trump announced he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

    Macron offered Abbas support, and in return, the Palestinian leader called on France to assume a new leadership role in the peace process after stating that the US could no longer participate.

    “We have trust in you. We respect the efforts made by you, and we count heavily on your efforts,” Abbas said.

    ‘He wants to talk to everyone’ 

    In early December, when the French president visited Qatar to negotiate the sale of 12 French-made Rafael fighter aircraft, he used the opportunity to try to mediate in the ongoing Gulf diplomatic crisis, one of the biggest disputes in inter-Arab relations in recent history.

    In June last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, air and sea blockade against it, accusing their Gulf neighbour of financing “terrorism” and maintaining close ties to their regional rival, Iran.

    Doha has repeatedly denied the allegations.

    “With regards to situation in the Gulf, I want to see a promise of reconciliation between its members, as I have said since the beginning of the crisis,” Macron said, echoing an earlier call urging the blockading states to lift the embargo “as quickly as possible”.

    “Macron has avoided antagonising both sides in this crisis, but he has built a deepening relationship with the country he feels more in tune with: the UAE,” said Guitta.

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    “Macron is making the point that he wants to talk to everyone in the region in order to advance France’s agenda and standing.”

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