French Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Held on 6 December, 2022

Speakers

Michel Duclos | A French diplomat who currently works as a Senior Advisor at the Institut Montaigne and the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre and Middle East program. 

Louis Dugit-Gros | A French diplomat and member of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères). 

Dorothée Schmid | Has worked at the Institut Francais des relations internationals (The French Institute for International Relations) since 2002.  She was previously a country-risk analyst for Bank Crédit Agricole-Indosuez and has carried out consulting missions for public institutions.

Discussion

The French Agenda

“French foreign policy priorities are very much informed by domestic considerations.”

 

The panel began the event with an overview of the current state of French foreign policy in the Middle East, and what factors dictate it. Dorothee described French foreign policy as being primarily constructed by domestic considerations. She listed immigration and terrorism as two major domestic concerns which directly impact the projection of French interests in the Middle East, citing the resurgence of ISIS om Syria and Iraq, and the consequential re-prioritisation of French counter terrorist strategies as a key example of this. Analysing the impact of domestic concerns on foreign policy in the Middle East more widely, Dorothee identified the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as France’s central priority, which has effectively sidelined Middle Eastern issues in French political discussion. Louis Dugit-Gros categorised France’s foreign policy toward the Middle East into three ‘baskets’. The first basket includes the North African nations of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and is centred on investments and cultural exchanges, with the bilateral dimensions taking priority over cooperation on regional issues. The second category is the basket of ‘strategic partners’ such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which France maintains a relation based on defence partnerships, but is attempting to develop closer ties. Finally, he listed the final basket of French policy in the Middle East as ‘insecurity management’, which includes France’s counter terrorism strategies in Iraq and Syria, as well as its role as mediator in Lebanon. Michel provided a succinct overview of France’s current role in the Middle East, declaring that France has lost a significant number of its leverages in the region in the past year. Overall, the panellists painted a comprehensive picture of France’s wavering and increasingly unstable foreign policy toward the Middle East in 2022.

Navigating the Rise of Turkey

“There French context is defined by the systematic underestimation of the regional role of Turkey.”


The speakers all touched upon the growing strategic importance of Turkey as a gateway between Europe and the Middle East, and the antagonistic role which France has opted to play in response to Turkey’s strategic development. Dorothee described the relationship between France and Turkey as being in a state of Cold War. She described the situation as an amalgamation of several layers of tensions between the two nations which have increased over time, exacerbated by Turkey’s recent assertion as a prominent regional player. She specifically focused on France and the EU’s role in the latest Aegean dispute between Turkey and Greece as a particular point of conflict. Ultimately, although French and Turkish relations have always been plagued by specific bilateral issues, the tensions have expanded and become more specific as France has emerged as a key leader for the EU. Dorothee was especially critical of Macron’s public response to Turkey, suggesting that his lack of engagement with the topic represents a persistent trend of underestimating the influence and relevance of Ankara’s recent political moves. Louis and Michel took a more optimistic stance, with Louis reminding the panel that there were significant improvements between France and Ankara for a short period in March of this year. Michel added that although relations between the two countries are unstable, they remain more or less the same as before recent disputes. He went on to state that all Western eyes will be fixed on Turkey in the upcoming national elections, the outcome of which will dictate future policy toward the increasingly aggressive state.

Between a rock and a hard place: Iran, France and Russia

“The JCPOA is dead.”


In answer to the question of France and the West’s relationship with Iran, the speakers concurred that the JCPOA, in its current form, will not be revived. Louis Dugot-Gris suggested that an alternative agreement may be proposed, however the West will neglect to declare the JCPOA void until an appropriate alternative has been constructed. Drawing from Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA as an example, Dugot-Gris acutely pointed out the destabilising effect that withdrawing from the agreement may have in the absence of an alternate arrangement. However, the nature of such an agreement, and the possibility of reaching common ground was brought into question by Dorothee. Dorothee identified the central role that Russia played in the mediation of the JCPOA, and questioned the West’s ability to facilitate a similar discussion with Iran without Russian involvement. Michel Duclos agreed that the assumption of Russia as a rational actor by the West underpinned the reliance on Russia to mediate with Iran, an assumption which has since been proven wrong. Ultimately, the question of the future of the JCPOA, and France’s involvement with Iran, hinges upon decisions by Moscow and Washington. The panel were unanimous in their damnation of the JCPOA, suggesting that the question is not whether it is dead, but what, if anything, will replace it.

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