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The role of France in producing and guaranteeing a new Middle Eastern settlement

last modified Oct 11, 2018 09:46 AM
We are pleased to present a summary of Ambassador Michel Duclos’ lecture at the University of Cambridge in the Peterhouse Theatre on the 9th of October

In France, there is a double tendency either to glorify what we used to call the "Arab policy", perceived as a grandiose plan deeply rooted in De Gaulle’s foreign policy, either to consider that France has no influence anymore in the region because of the Arab springs. My stance would be to say that it was never that grandiose, nor it is that bad today.

This "Arab policy", funded by President De Gaulle and later followed by his successors, was based on three elements. First, this policy was to promote a balanced position on the Israelo-Palestinian conflict starting with the famous press conference by De Gaulle in November 1967. Second, it was based on good relationships with all the dictators due to our belief that "enlightened despots" could modernise their countries. Finally, France extended her reach from her traditional backyards (Maghreb and Levantine) to the Gulf, exploiting skilfully opportunities and circumstances.

The Arab springs have profoundly undermined the traditional pillars of France’s Arab policy. The Palestine cause is not as central as it used to be, Islamism is on the rise, authoritarianism is challenged everywhere in the region. In spite of these setbacks, France is still regarded in the Middle East as an important player by all regional actors,  though her position is more fragile today because of the deep fractures of the region.

A lesson to be drawn from the Westphalia peace process is that there is a need to promote innovative formats today. This is especially true in a context where the US are retreating from the region, Russia has come back in the Middle East through Syria and tensions are escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran. France is too big to be a mediator not taking sides, and not big enough to be a broker imposing a solution. But she could be a pathfinder in this context, acting as an intermediary promoting dialogues including China and India on a macroscale, as well a civil society actors on a microscale.

In a contemporary context, external guaranties cannot be exclusively military. There is a need for « civil guaranties »  and nation-building in any peace settlement, and the EU is ideally positioned to play that role. France can be part of a military guaranty alongside the US and other allies, and part of the civil guaranty through the EU. She should play an active role thanks to her permanent seat at the Security Council to make sure that there is good articulation between these two dimensions. This would allow us to make sure that civil and military guarantors would work hand in hand in the Middle East.

There are four sets of situations, involving two countries in each case, where such ideas could be applied. Tunisia and Libya call for our immediate attention and require a huge effort. They are indeed essential countries for the security of our homeland, and we have to show that contrary to the Russian narrative, a successful democratic transition is possible in Tunis and Tripoli. The rivalry between Tehran and Ryad may well last for decades, and France will have to be part of an effort to ensure that Iran does not take reckless positions in the current situation or that Saudi Arabia will not get into the way when Tehran and Washington will start to talk again to each other. A third couple is Iraq and Syria. There, the EU could fully unfold its potential as a civil guarantor helping reconstruction, in the short-term in the case of Iraq and only when conditions will be met in the case of Syria. Finally, Egypt and Turkey are key countries for the security of the region. France and her allies should not let Turkey look eastward when we have so many interests in common. An equally big risk would be an implosion of Egypt; no effort should be spared to prevent further deteriorations of the current state of this country."