For French President Emmanuel Macron, the outcome of the conflicts in Libya and Syria are central to the role that the West, and more specifically, Europe, should play in the region.
In recent months, French President Emmanuel Macron has upped his nation’s stake in the Eastern Mediterranean and what is historically referred to in French discourse as ‘notre proche orient’ or, ‘our Near East’.
Through a series of speeches, tweets and political initiatives, Macron has sought to advance a vision for the region grounded, partly, in emerging geopolitical realities that include what Macron understands to be a withdrawal of NATO, a drawdown of American power in the region and energy and, in some respect, a discourse informed by the French conception of Liberalism based on pluralism, religious co-existence and a robust engagement from civil society.
These latter points, while debatable in their details, are laudable, and one would be hard pressed to find any reasonable person opposed to them on principled grounds. There is, however, a stench of hypocrisy that stands out vis-à-vis Macron’s apparent disregard for France’s colonial legacy as well as more recent French foreign policy adventures in the region.
Regarding the latter, under Macron’s leadership, France has pushed an agenda in the region of what might be best termed as ‘liberal authoritarianism’.
Broadly speaking, this involves extending support to authoritarian regimes ostensibly in the name of promoting hot topic issues, such as gender rights and protecting religious minorities in the face of supposedly homegenising and revisionist tendencies of ‘Islamist’ movements.
In comparison to the ‘Islamist’ bogeymen that seem to haunt Macron’s world view, these authoritarians represent the lesser of two evils.
Macron’s close relationship with, and support of, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is a case in point as is his increasingly close alliance with the UAE’s Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Zayed, with whom Macron shares ideological affinities and, to a certain extent, a shared vision for the region.
While ideology arguably plays a role in these calculations, it also clearly acts as cover for the preservation and advancement of strategic interests, as it is all but impossible to point to an instance where the type of rights espoused by Macron have actually been enhanced through partnerships with regimes whose respect for the values Macron articulates, are minimal at best.
Authoritarians of the type Macron tends to relate to are, of course, largely predictable and are required only to obtain a minimal threshold legitimacy. While not seen as trustworthy per se, these regimes are seen as being relatively reliable partners, particularly in comparison to what seems to be the nightmarish scenario of having deeply legitimate governments and institutions in the region.
Macron’s recent call for the formation of a Pax Mediterranea as a means of countering “Imperialist” Turkey haunted by ‘illusions’ of its history, represents a perspectival distortion of history, par excellence.
The historical memory in question, namely that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remains contested with arguably-distorted narratives often designed to suit particularly political projects emanating from multiple quarters including those of Arab and Turkish nationalists.
However, Mr Macron’s paternalistic pandering to ‘causes célèbres’ such as pluralism and religious harmony, with France acting as saviours against a purported eastern tendency towards intolerance and sectarianism, represents perhaps the most distorted narrative of this history of them all.
Without sliding into an idealisation of Ottoman schemes for managing its diverse subjects, the emergence of sectarianism as political identity has a historicity that lays mainly in French and British intervention in the Levant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1920, following the establishment of the mandate system, France and Britain partitioned the Levant and divided what remained of Ottoman Turkey. France subsequently split its newly acquired Syrian territory along sectarian lines, which included the creation of an ostensibly sovereign Lebanon, itself organised according to sectarian logic.
For the British and the French, the mandate system was merely a tool to extend their respective imperial reaches and protect a strategic environment they felt was best suited to maintain their interests.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Britain and France both blocked anti-colonial delegations from the Middle East from attending the Paris Peace conference, however, US President Wilson allowed for the King-Crane commission to set out and assess how the people of the Levant wanted to determine their future.
Regardless of the feelings of people in the Arab east, in particular regarding the now defunct Ottoman Empire, the King-Crane commission provided empirical support to the unsurprising notion that the inhabitants of the Middle East did not want to be ruled by the Europeans.
The King-Crane commission concluded that if the interests and desires of the region's people were genuinely taken into account, there would be no reason to partition the Levant. Nevertheless, as evidenced by a 1919 memorandum authored by Lord Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration, the King-Crane report was to be ignored.
“Take Syria first. Do we mean in the case of Syria to consult principally the wishes of the inhabitants? We mean nothing of the kind […] So whatever the inhabitants may wish, it is France they will certainly have.”
Consequently, not only was the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination in the Levant effectively dead in the water, but so began in earnest a long process of sectarianisation, exploitation and a disrespect for indigenous desires that arguably continues to this day, albeit in more covert forms.
Macron, the Mediterranean and the ‘European Question’
For Macron, the outcome of the conflicts in Libya and Syria are central to the role that the West, and more specifically, Europe should play in the region. It should also be the model of development that he aspires for the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
France, and French colonialism in particular, has a long history with the Mediterranean. Historians of the Mediterranean have demonstrated the profound shift in the French conceptualisation of the maritime space known as the ‘Mediterranean Sea’ from a dividing sea and a border between Europe and the other, to a ‘mediating’ sea.
Arising out of the French-Algerian colonial context, throughout the 19th century, the Mediterranean concept experienced a series of transitions ultimately resulting in the creation of the Western Mediterranean as a structuring feature of the French Empire.
The conception of the Mediterranean as a mediating space facilitated the French colonial project. This definition of these waters also lay at the heart of the French conception for Europe.
Seen through this lens, Macron’s discourse on the Eastern Mediterranean can perhaps be best understood as a reflection of his anxieties about the meaning and place of Europe in the world, rather than a genuine concern to safeguard the people of the region from some kind of revisionist Turkish imperialism or, more subtly, from their own predilections towards sectarianism and intolerance.
In a strategic environment still defined by the latter days of the Ottoman Empire, the legacy of the ‘Eastern Question’ looms large.
However, as much as the tensions today are a reflection of this legacy, rather than being characterised by a weakened Turkish power, today’s dynamics arguably reflect a relatively weakened Europe; a Europe of which France has unilaterally taken the reigns and driven to provocative action by anxieties caused by a changing strategic environment and a fear of being cut out of what it sees as its sphere of influence.
Although the possibility of a confluence of interests remains, if Macron was genuine in his desire to see the peoples of the region flourish and take charge of their future, he would be more attuned to his country’s past and current disregard of the will of the people who he so passionately claims to stand by.