Struggling to regain momentum for a domestic political agenda, the French president seeks opportunities abroad.
Haunted by the ghost of one-term presidents such as his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, French President Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy ambitions are increasingly becoming more erratic.
In comments that showcase the best of Gaelic arrogance he recently stated “we Europeans need to be clear and firm" with Turkey, yet that message isn’t one that other European countries are on board with.
Macron’s woes, however, start much closer to home.
According to polls, Macron has struggled to maintain his popularity in the face of widespread protests. Macron’s approval ratings hover at around 30 percent and were as low as 18 percent at the height of the Yellow Vest movement.
With two years left in his presidency he has failed in his grand mission to transform the French economy. His sharp rhetoric against Turkey in the East Mediterranean and self-assumed role as a power broker in the Middle East has in part been about distracting from failures at home.
Yet, even Macron’s foreign policy outbursts have resulted in little so far.
Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) told me that he thinks that Macron knows “time is playing against him.”
Dupuy believes that France is seeking to take advantage of that fact that the US is distracted in an election year and will likely be until a new president is sworn in 2021, giving Macron an opportunity to shape the politics in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.
Dupuy puts it as France seeking to take advantage of the “relative decline of America’s investment as a mediating and/or central power broker actor in the Middle East until the beginning of 2021.”
Nothing more than hot air?
One senior Turkish diplomat based in one of the Sub-Saharan countries told me that while Macron was very enthusiastic about French foreign policy in the ex-colonial provinces it has had very little to show for it.
“He was talking quite passionately about the G5 Sahel group, but nothing concrete happens in reality. In fact, France has lost power and credibility with some countries in the region,” the diplomat told me.
In the aftermath of Brexit, and shortly after his election victory in 2017, Macron put forward a vision that would have seen France take a wider role in the European Union and with countries working in harmony.
But things haven't quite worked out like that and Macron in the eastern Mediterranean has been more than willing to act alone.
In the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, Macron thought he could bring US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in the same room and engineer a breakthrough for the 41-year-old enmity between the USA and Iran.
Trump called Iran ”the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism” during his speech to the General Assembly. Macron’s efforts were quashed at the outset.
Peace and bailouts
The same day that Macron was in Beirut last week, promising peace, prosperity and most importantly a bailout (if the political elite followed him) French soldiers opened fire on an bus in Mali, killing one civilian and wounding the two others. A reminder of another failed French intervention.
On the plane to Beirut, Macron told the Politico reporter Rym Momtaz that he is aware that he is making a risky bet and his political capital is on the table, a bet that could be repaid with greater influence in the east Mediterranean region.
Macron, who has little political capital to spend at home, is rushing around the world to find a solution for his career in the foreign policy arena.
Although he wants to be seen as a visionary, his plans and ideas have well-worn roots.
Macron harshly criticised Sarkozy’s messy foreign policy many times during his political campaign in 2017. However, Macron, who never held an elected position before his election victory in 2017, met with Sarkozy several times before and after the election to get foreign policy advice.
Abdennour Toumi, a researcher at the Centre of Middle East Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara told me that Macron has relied on Sarkozy for his foreign policy gambits even relying on his former staff.
The current interior minister Gerald Darmanin was also the director of Sarkozy’s primary election campaign in 2016.
After Macron was elected, he made it clear that he would be following ‘Faullo-Mitterrandist’ foreign policy, which includes founding father Charles de Gaulle’s and former president Francois Mitterrand’s approach to French foreign policy.
The Faullo-Mitterrandist approach includes national autonomy in decision-making as well as maintaining a nuclear deterrent.
Macron wants France to project power when it is necessary, and lead Europe on critical issues but France today is not the the leading European power as it once was under De Gaulle.
Le Monde Diplomatique summarises Macron’s foreign policy attitude as ”respecting alliances without aligning with the United States, which was followed until Chirac presidency but abandoned by Sarkozy and Hollande”.
Libya, another disaster for Macron
Incredibly, given France’s involvement in the Libya conflict alongside warlord Khalifa Haftar, in his speech to the Tunisian parliament in 2018 he condemned the Western countries interventionist politics with regard to Libya.
“His address to the Tunisian parliament was an indirect criticism of Sarkozy's foreign policy in Libya but what he intends to do in the eastern Mediterrenean against Turkey has the same mindset,” said Assistant Professor Levent Yılmaz, a Turkish security analyst.
Libya has been another location for Macron’s grandiose designs but he has had little to show for it.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, senior advisor to GNA in Libya recently told me that “Without doubt, Macron has put himself in a very difficult position, where he is forced to make reactive decisions in order to save face and to quickly cut-off any links to the alliance which has been striving to abort the democratic movement in the region”.
Calling Turkey’s presence in Libya as a ‘dangerous game’, Macron supported a strongman in Libya who would help France preserve its interest but allow Haftar to rule over the entire Libya with an iron fist.
“Due to the miscalculations made in the past few years by France, it is inevitable that Macron will be forced to make tactical moves where he will have to sacrifice some long-term ambitions in order to save his political career”, Abdallah argues.
Macron’s recent invitation to GNA Prime Minister Sarraj is a result of the recalculation process, according to Abdallah. Since Macron found himself aligned with Russia, the UAE and Egypt, this alliance placed him within an alliance supporting a military outlaw.
“Therefore we see the panic and contradicting posturing from France, including the recent invitation to President Sarraj to visit Paris,” he argues.
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