French Middle East policy in the year of „Zeitenwende“

BANDAR ALJALOUD - associated press

President Emmanuel Macron and his government, as other European administrations too, is in need of redefining its policy and relations with the countries of the Middle East. The hunger for alternative energy resources is one aspect, not allowing Russia and China to further increase their influence in the region the other.

This summer, the political cloud in Paris was focusing on talks with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and, of course, Algeria as a former close French ally in Northern Africa.

In the second half of July, Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) consecutively traveled to Paris and met with French President Emmanuel Macron. In August, negotiations with the head of Algeria were on the agenda.

These consultations underline the revived ambitions of France in the Arabian Peninsula. France is positioning itself as a Western partner that, although may not be a substitute to Washington, is one that provides, as one former French ambassador explained to me, a “convenient and credible” option to those Gulf leaders eager to diversify their partnerships.

The Saudi dilemma

With a long handshake in front of the cameras in the courtyard of the Elysée Palace, Emmanuel Macron gave the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman an unusually warm welcome. “We congratulate ourselves on the increased exchange between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and France,” said the final communiqué.

When US President Biden met Crown Prince Bin Salman one week ahead, they only briefly bumped their fists in greeting. Biden visibly made an effort to appear distant, while Macron posed for the cameras in Paris for long minutes with Bin Salman and posed a second time for the photographers with the guest from Saudi Arabia at the glass entrance door to the Elysée Palace. The Crown Prince was also received by the President for a private dinner.

Bin Salman was last received by Macron in Paris in April 2018. Six months later, in October 2018, US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi had regularly criticized human rights violations in Saudi Arabia in the Washington Post, among others. Not only US secret services came to the conclusion that the murder could not have been carried out without Bin Salman’s approval. That is why the crown prince has become persona non grata in western democracies. France backed off even then and, unlike Germany, refused to stop arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia.

Macron ended bin Salman’s ostracism last December when he visited him in Jeddah. Since Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and the search for new energy suppliers, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries, has once again become a popular partner for discussion. Macron has repeatedly advocated ramping up oil production and increasing supplies.

The Elysée announced that Macron had personally invited Bin Salman to Paris. The exchange should be understood in connection with a whole series of meetings with those responsible from the region, it said. Macron received the Israeli head of government, the president of the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinian president and the Egyptian president in the Elysée Palace, he also had a long exchange with the Iranian President on the phone. Despite the French interests, Macron during that time was also President of the EU Council. A broader European strategy can therefore be assumed, too.

The Algeria dilemma

After the Saudi visit in Paris, Macron travelled to Algeria. The unusually long stay of three days in the former French colony was intended to put the recently tense relationship between the two countries on a new ground.

The French delegation, which came with seven ministers, now wants to strengthen economic cooperation above all. The focus is likely to be on increasing gas imports to France and other European countries. After the start of the war against Ukraine, Brussels, Berlin and Paris are hoping for a closer energy partnership with Algeria and its neighboring countries Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. But even France, which is closely related linguistically, geographically and economically, is being squeezed out by its competitors China, Turkey and Russia. After China, France is only Algeria’s second largest trading partner and supplies only 10.6 percent of imports. Turkey is catching up and has just landed several construction projects worth millions.

France has been demanding a critical analysis of the war of independence there for years, in which up to 45,000 people died according to Algerian estimates. Although Macron was the first French President to express his regret for the victims, he has not yet formally apologized for French war crimes. Last October he had triggered a diplomatic scandal himself. During an official meeting with descendants of French settlers in Algeria, he spoke of a distorted narrative of the Algerian state’s past. According to eyewitnesses, Macron said that Algeria did not exist before the colonization. The diplomatic affront of the first French president born after Algeria’s independence led to the recall of the Algerian ambassador to Paris. Although he has meanwhile returned to France after a clarification, the French air force is still not allowed to fly over Algerian airspace. As a result, French military operations in West Africa face logistical challenges.

There is also a dispute between Algiers and Paris over the 50 percent reduction in French visas for Algerians that was decided last year. Paris announced the measure unilaterally because the Algerian authorities had refused to allow rejected asylum seekers back into the country.

The country, which is run in an authoritarian manner by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and an ominous security apparatus, has repeatedly had critical activists and journalists arrested in recent months. Journalists such as Sofiane Merakchi were sentenced to several months in prison following non-violent street protests. An Algerian journalist said that more and more colleagues would emigrate to France after the arrests. But more and more politically inactive Algerians want to leave their country. Despite Africa’s largest gas reserves, many families face financial ruin. The business elite is resisting the reforms demanded by the citizens just as vehemently as the political leadership.

Should Macron’s charm offensive fail, there is a risk of a setback similar to that in Mali, where anti-French resentment and the colonialist attitude of the French army ultimately led to the withdrawal. Although French military intervention saved Algeria’s neighbor from being taken over by radical groups in 2013, Russian mercenaries are now securing the military government there. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had visited Algiers on his first trip abroad and promised arms deliveries. In return, President Tebboune traveled to Moscow for the security conference in mid-August.

Emmanuel Macron gave an all-round positive assessment of his recent visit to Algeria. The five-page final declaration emphasizes a new “dynamics of irreversible progress” in mutual relations. For the first time since the end of the War of Independence in 1962, a Defense and Security Council was held at the highest level. Under the chairmanship of the two presidents, who are constitutionally “commanders in chief of the armed forces”, Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu, Chief of Staff Thierry Burkhard and the director of the French foreign intelligence service DGSE discussed with the heads of the Algerian defense and intelligence apparatus. The main focus was on the Algerian neighboring countries of Mali, Libya, Tunisia, counter-terrorism and Western Sahara. In order not to upset the Moroccan king, Macron announced a visit to Rabat in October.

According to French diplomats, the end of the French mission in Mali is worrying the Algerian government. The new concept in security policy is therefore due to the desire in Algiers not to give Moscow a completely free hand in Mali, even if Russia remains Algeria’s most important security partner. In the Ukraine war, Algeria emphasizes its “neutrality”. The Algerian armed forces are mainly equipped with material from Russia, and the leading cadres were all trained by Moscow.

Unlike Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who sealed a new gas partnership with Algeria on two trips in April and July, Macron deliberately pushed the energy supply into the background. In the final declaration, the “economic partnership and energy transition” is only mentioned in fourth place. Macron wants to look to the future and build a “balanced partnership”. He focuses primarily on the start-up scene. Overall, Macron strives to upgrade the informal network. It is estimated that between three and six million French people have a special relationship with Algeria, through immigration, a family’s colonial past or the military service of their father’s generation. In the final declaration, France promises to invest in research programs for the energy transition and in particular for the processing of flare gas. Only after Macron’s return to Paris information was leaked, according to which the Algerian energy company Sonatrach could increase gas deliveries to France by up to 50 percent.

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