France reinvents itself a power-broker in the Greater Middle East against US belligerence

SHAFAQNA – At the height of France’ Algerian crisis (June 4, 1958) General Charles de Gaulle delivered a speech which very much defined his country’s political future, and forever enshrined the notion that France’s colonial adventures were indeed over.

Standing before an expecting crowd in Algiers, the General declared: “I have understood you!” While his words were initially misconstrued as an expression of his support against Algeria political and institutional emancipation, it soon became clear that his vision of the future very much revolved around that concept of sovereign independence he dedicated his career to defend, assert, and altogether enshrine as a fundamental right.


If many of his contemporaries saw in Gen. de Gaulle’s actions betrayal – he was in fact swimming against the then-French establishment’s political consensus, others recognised a statesman’s acute understanding of political movements. As he told Louis Terrenoire on May 18, 1955, a former member of the Resistance  : “We are in the presence of a general movement in the world, of a wave that carries all peoples along toward emancipation. There are fools who do not want to understand…  ”


De Gaulle’s real ambitions lied not in colonialism but the rise of a European powerhouse, which financial might and political traction would rein in on America’s hegemonic ambitions.

Such ideology was best encapsulated in the following declaration (Strasburg, November 1959): “It is Europe, from the Atlantic as far as the Urals … it is Europe as a whole that will determine the destiny of the world.  ”


When he received Maurice Clavel in Colombey in 1956, he explained to him that he wanted “  the independence of Algeria to inaugurate a policy of a world-wide challenge to United States and of rapprochement with the Third World  .” Beginning in June 1958, he prepared his withdrawal from NATO by refusing the deployment of American missiles in France. His minister Alain Peyrefitte noted  : “  De Gaulle wants to put an end to the Algerian affair quickly in order to engage in grand global politics between the two blocs, a kind of politics that he alone can lead and that is the only one worthy of France.  ”


De Gaulle’s dreams of grandeur remained just that … dreams! Before America’s rising Sun, the old continent, including France, took to the shadows – sidekick to a new order which center of gravity cared little for cooperation and more about state-clientism.


Fast forward a few decades and safe from a fleeting attempt by former President Jacques Chirac to stand up to Washington’s militarisation of foreign affairs on the eve of Iraq 2003 invasion, France has toed the line, instead of conceptualising it.


Enters French President Emmanuel Macron …


Following a period of polite political quietism France just about stated its claim as a new power-broker in the Greater Middle Eastern region, offering an interesting alternative to US President Donald Trump’s war-lord-type rhetoric.


Readers will note that President Macron’s new political ‘finesse’ comes at an interesting juncture if one considers how heavily charged the region has become amid shifting geopolitical alliances (mainly away from the Saudi block), a deepening of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, Iran’ nuclear deal, and Iraq’s coming elections.


With every new crisis and question marks being raised over the region, Macron’s France could in fact reinvent itself anew by reviving those ties … and cards it once wielded, and reaffirm Paris’ gravitational pull. If Macron’s political vision evidently differs from that expressed by Gen. de Gaulle, it would be foolish not to see the underlying pattern of both agendas: one’s political assertion through cooperation on the basis of sovereign nationalism.


Breaking away from the American-Israeli-Saudi block President Macron has called for the international community to maintain a “permanent” dialogue with Iran instead, and not beat the war drums. He said: “The official line pursued by those denouncing the Iran nuclear deal, namely the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are our allies in many ways, is one which is paving the way for war in Iran.” The line being taken is a “deliberate strategy” for some, he said, adding that France was committed to maintaining balance in the region.

“If we are not careful, we will end up surreptitiously rebuilding an ‘axis of evil’,”  Macron added, referring to a comment by former US president George W. Bush, who used the term to describe the ‘rogue’ regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Such support for peace with Iran was further reinforced by Macron’s restraint in addressing the wave of protests Iran witnessed this January 2018 – a distinctive contrast from Washington’s cut-throat approach.


President Macron’s gamble has not escaped France’s intellectual and political circles.


Francois Clemenceau an expert in international politics noted on January 2, 2018 that Macron’s strategy in the Greater Middle East diametrically differs from that fronted by the White House, thus setting Washington and Paris on a crashing course.


Unlike US President Trump, French President Macron sees beyond the region’ growing pains and developing geopolitical realignment to recognise those movements the United States appears so inclined to crush for fear of embracing them.


More pertinently still, President Macron seems to have adopted a very Putin-like political stance in that he understands that political detente and conflict resolution are better architected on the back of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.


Echoing the French president’s warnings to the United States this January Russia’s Foreign ministry slammed Washington’s “destructive” approach to the nuclear deal.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov went as far as accusing the US of using the situation in Iran, as an excuse to undermine the nuclear agreement.


The current situation, when Washington falls to temptation to use the moment to raise new issues regarding to the JCPOA, shows the deliberate attempt to undermine and shatter the international community’s commitment the JCPOA,” Ryabkov told TASS.

While it is much too early to speak of any real rapprochement in between Paris and Tehran, it remains nevertheless true that President Macron carved a space in which the possibility of a detente could manifest – a dramatic shift if one considers that France and Iran have existed worlds apart from each other since 1979.


Interestingly President Macron’s willingness to exert diplomatic restraint towards Iran was less pronounced in his dealings with Iraq. On that dossier the Elysee was much ‘liberal’ with its criticism … one could argue slightly patronising, and as opined by Pieter-Jan Dockx,  an independent researcher and intern at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies – New Delhi, unrealistically idealist.


President Macron’s plan for Iraq’ s post-Daesh include for example the dismantlement of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – the very body Ayatollah Sistani helped mobilised following the publication in June 2014 of an edict which called upon all able Iraqis to rise a tide against Daesh’s violent radicalism.


In early December 2017, during a press conference in France following a meeting with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, Macron called for “the gradual” dismantling of all Iraqi militias.

“It is essential that there is a gradual demilitarization, in particular of the [Shia militias] that established itself in the last few years in Iraq,” he noted.


President Macron’s grasp of foreign affairs here may leave something to be desired as his wishes offer a poor understanding of ground realities, or flair for political pragmatism – at least as far as Iraq is concerned.


But such a ‘faux pas’ one must admit was tempered by Paris’ determination to shelter Iraq as the country prepares to hold its next elections.

France will be “vigilant that there be no destabilization from outside powers” as Iraq prepares for elections in May, he said in his new year’s address.


France’s new found desire to act a bridge-maker and peace-broker could prove a useful  lifeline in a region plagued by instability and political unknown.


Decades after Gen. de Gaulle spoke of the need to challenge the American empire, France may have just risen to the challenge and set the tone for a European political Renaissance of sorts.

By Catherine Shakdam – This article was first published in Al Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies

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