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Macron Wants to Be a Middle Eastern Superpower

The French president is making a bid to shape the region—but does his reach exceed his grasp?

French President Emmanuel Macron gets off a plane as he arrives at Baghdad airport, on Sept. 2, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron gets off a plane as he arrives at Baghdad airport, on Sept. 2, 2020. GONZALO FUENTES/X07238/AFP via Getty Images

The French are back in the Middle East—or at least, it seems that way. With all the talk these days about Russia or China filling the space in the Middle East that the United States is alleged to be vacating, France is now making a bid to be part of the conversation. In the past month and a half, President Emmanuel Macron has visited Lebanon twice and turned up in Baghdad for meetings with President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, Nechirvan Barzani. Macron has also beefed up the French military presence in the area, deploying naval units including a helicopter carrier and frigate to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Officially, these movements were ordered to support relief in Lebanon after the devastating port explosion in Beirut on Aug. 4. That does not explain the French troops and aircraft that arrived on the Greek island of Crete or the two fighter jets that appeared in Cyprus. The naval units in particular have made a show of linking up with the Hellenic Navy and conducting exercises.

French policymakers have long maintained the fiction that France remains a power in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. They sell some big-ticket weaponry to a variety of countries, have joined the Americans and Britons in a variety of military operations (though not Operation Iraqi Freedom), and are involved in counterterrorism operations, especially in North Africa. And every now and again, a French president declares his determination to find a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

But those efforts have tended to fade even before the next news cycle begins. Now it seems the French are more serious about their role in these interconnected regions. Macron is staking a claim that France is willing to wield power to bring order and stability to the area. Why the change? In a few words: refugees, energy, and Turkey.

Almost a decade ago one of Macron’s predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy, eagerly sought an international military intervention to bring down Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The then French president was not an advocate of regime change for the sake of bringing democracy to Libya. Rather, Sarkozy was concerned that the violence Qaddafi was threatening in response to an uprising against him would send waves of refugees to European shores. It seems the same issue is driving Macron in Libya, but with a twist. Instead of getting rid of a dictator, Macron is looking for one he can help put in power. When the French signed up with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the incompetent Qaddafist general who leads the Libyan National Army, against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, it was based on a cold calculation that Haftar could be the strongman that France needs to keep Libya together and thus keep Libyans and other Africans from reaching Southern Europe.

Refugees are also in part what is driving the French in Lebanon. Of course, as the country’s former colonial power, it is likely that France is responding to the Lebanese collapse out of nostalgic responsibility. And Macron surely deserves praise for being the only Western leader willing to take on the problem, but part of that problem is the prospect of a new Lebanese diaspora appearing in Europe. It was not that long ago that a wave of Syrian refugees buffeted European politics and contributed to the success of right-wing nationalist and neo-Nazi parties in a variety of countries. Macron wants to avoid a new wave of refugees, especially since he faces reelection in 2022 as an incumbent with public approval ratings in recent months ranging from weak to improved and back again.

It is also important not to forget that what lies beneath Libya, Iraq, and the waters of Lebanon and Cyprus is of keen interest to the French. Libya has the largest reserves of oil in Africa and the fifth-largest deposits of natural gas, which is why French energy company Total has been operating in Libya for almost seven decades. In Iraq, the same firm has a 22.5 percent stake in a consortium that runs the Halfaya oil field and has an 18 percent interest in an exploration block in the Kurdistan region. It is also involved in exploration for gas off Cyprus’ southern coast, which is right next to Lebanese waters, where there are also believed to be copious amounts of energy resources. Because the French have often differed from the United States on regional issues—especially Palestine and Iraq—they have garnered a reputation in the Middle East for upholding principles and human rights. Yet these contrasts have obscured the fact that the French pursue and protect their commercial interests in the region doggedly, including their well-developed efforts to tap the region’s energy resources.

Then there is Turkey. The ill will between the two countries goes beyond the obvious distaste that Macron harbors for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the generally low regard in which Erdogan holds his French counterpart. France—along with a number of other members—has long been skeptical of Turkey’s determination to join the European Union. Setting aside Turkey’s democratic deficits that currently disqualify it from membership, French officials are clearly of the view that that the EU should be a club of predominantly Christian countries coterminous with a specified geography—for which Turkey would never qualify—as opposed to an exclusive club of countries based on a set of ideals and norms, for which Ankara could be eligible in the future. The current iteration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party does not help matters. It is all at once more authoritarian, more nationalist, more aggressive internationally, and more Islamist than when many in the West perceived it as the leading edge of a new, more open and liberal politics in Turkey and the Muslim world. Of course, that the Turkish government has been willing to use the threat of unleashing refugees on Europe has not won it many friends in Europe, especially among French policymakers.

Added to these problems is Turkey’s aggressive approach to the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Levant. From the perspective of Paris, Turkish gas exploration off of Cyprus threatens a fellow EU member and French commercial interests. Ankara’s support for the government in Tripoli runs counter to France’s desire to contain refugees and complicates its effort to fight extremists in the adjacent Sahel. And should Libya become a client state of Turkey, as seems to be happening, French officials must wonder about Total’s long relationship with Tripoli.

Macron’s September visit to Iraq, where he emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and support for the autonomy of the Kurdistan region, was standard fare, but it was likewise a message to Turkey that not all countries—the United States included—will look the other way as Turkey conducts military operations in Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party over the objections of officials in Baghdad. No doubt Macron was also engaged in a bit of trolling intended to annoy almost everyone in Turkey, given well-known and well-deserved Turkish sensitivities on the matter.

The highest stakes in the French-Turkish drama are in the Mediterranean, however. France’s umbrage over Turkey’s bullying of both Cyprus and Greece is directly related to the maritime agreement that Ankara struck with Tripoli’s Government of National Accord in late 2019. The French apparently believed they could not sit idly by as the Turks drew arbitrary lines that essentially bisected the Mediterranean in their favor. Never mind that Ankara was responding to the geostrategic challenge of a Greece-Egypt-Cyprus-Israel alignment against it; the French perceived it as bid to establish Turkish power in the region that could not go uncontested. Thus the tightening of ties with Greece and Cyprus and the successful diplomatic efforts to censure the Turkish government at the recent summit of Europe’s Mediterranean countries, which was a blow to Ankara’s diplomacy.

There has been a lot of commentary recently about conflicts over gas, over exclusive economic zones, over islands, which is accurate, but it is easy to get bogged down in their complexity. Viewed from another angle, France has taken the actions it has in the Eastern Mediterranean because it is a big power vying with another big power, Turkey, over the privilege and attendant power of providing order in the area. Given the way a variety of countries have coalesced around the French-led coalition that is emerging, so far it seems Paris has the edge.

Macron deserves credit for wading into Lebanon’s mess when no one else will, supporting Cypriot and Greek rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and standing up to Turkey, which has grown used to bullying its neighbors. Yet it is not at all clear what Macron wants to do with French power in the region beyond standing up to Turkey. The knock on the French president is that he really doesn’t believe in anything other than himself. Macron has some running room in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean to change that perception. He did not get off to a good start with a clumsy tweet after the summit of Europe’s Mediterranean countries declaring, “Pax Mediterranea !” He should have tweeted, “Let le grand jeu begin.”

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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