Analysis: Macron’s Chances of Returning France to Glory in Mideast and Beyond
French president positions himself as new leader of EU, though with little to show thus far
His domestic difficulties piling up and his parliamentary majority gone, French President Emmanuel Macron is working on bigger things – like saving Europe, carrying the mantle of multilateralism and establishing France as a global power on the scale of the US, China and Russia.
It’s difficult to contemplate that Macron has been on the global stage for just three years. His presidency has seen much tumult domestically, with France’s problems often mirroring those of greater Europe. With Germany’s Angela Merkel set to exit, a post-Brexit European Union finds itself disjointed, unable to find consensus on much of anything but the lowest common denominator. Who even wants the job of leading Europe?
But that’s exactly Macron’s drive. Even as his own political fortunes fall, Macron fears that a drifting European project could vanish. And he’s determined to make the continent a rival to the biggest players – not just on trade but on political policy. A diminished France, though, doesn’t have the juice to do it solo.
“I don’t think we can do it alone,” French Ambassador to the United Nations Nicolas de Rivière told The Media Line. “Of course, France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We are a nuclear power. We have strong diplomacy, a strong army and a strong influence and we will continue to use it to promote peace in the Middle East, in Africa, everywhere. But we need our partners – first of all our European partners to act within the framework of the European Union and second, within the UN, I think none of these crises – whether it’s Libya, the Palestinian issue, Syria, Iran, the Sahel region – can be solved by one country. … I think our approach has been to sometimes take the lead of a group.”
But France’s former glory in the Middle East has not returned under Macron, and it’s quite questionable whether Macron has anything to back up his ambitions. Many blame his backing of Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar for prolonging the Libyan civil war. His attempts to broker talks between Iran and the US fell flat, his bromance with US President Donald Trump ended messily, and he has nothing to show for his attempts to coax concessions out of Russian President Vladimir Putin in return for an invitation to reengage with the EU. And when it comes to the Middle East, the record isn’t much better.
“France’s current role in the Middle East is spectacularly diminished compared to what it was 30 years ago,” former Israeli Ambassador to France Daniel Shek told The Media Line. “It used to be a regional power with tremendous influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, with the Palestinians, and until even with Egypt until the early ’90s.”
Besides Macron’s diplomatic extrication of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Saudi Arabia in what some reported to be a kidnapping, there hasn’t been much of a sign that Macron has established himself as a player in the region. He has been helpless in watching the Iran nuclear accord fall apart and has not been able to convince the Saudis and United Arab Emirates to end the war against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Even as Macron cites China as a threat to global order and security, at least 10 MENA countries selected China as their main trading partner. Most of France’s pull comes through arms sales, but those have proven controversial, with Macron supplying huge amounts of weaponry to Egypt and Saudi Arabia while ignoring their leaders’ assaults on human rights – something that belies Macron’s favored image as a reformer and champion of humanism.
But should Macron get more credit for trying in a region where so many have failed so spectacularly before?
“He’s present and active in a way others have not been,” William Drozdiak, author of the newly released The Last President of Europe, told The Media Line. Drozdiak’s book chronicles Macron’s attempts to revitalize France and Europe on his way to saving the world. “Macron has tried to modernize France so that the EU can be a major player on the world stage. It is almost hopeless to find success in the Middle East, though. The US abdication precedes Trump, with (former US President Barack) Obama’s pivot to Asia. It’s left a huge vacuum that worsened the situation in Syria. And it essentially led to the destabilization of Europe and to a far-right resurgence, presenting Macron with a whole new level of challenges.”
Macron can lean on his recent win, getting Merkel to sign on to his potential game-changing EU borrowing scheme that would involve the raising of common debt and the distribution of massive amounts of money to those nations and industries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It could signal a proverbial passing of the torch of EU leadership from Merkel to Macron. But with four EU nations already saying they won’t provide grants, the question for Macron is the same as it’s been since his remarkable rise to the presidency: Can he close the deal?