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Macron in Beirut and Baghdad: a New French Approach to the Middle East?

Macron in Beirut and Baghdad: a New French Approach to the Middle East?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On his spectacular visit to Beirut on August 6, President Macron had spoken frankly to the Lebanese authorities. He had also announced that he would return to the Lebanese capital on September 1. He did as promised, a second visit further motivated by the anniversary of a founding moment of the Franco-Lebanese relationship, the declaration of Greater Lebanon in 1920.

Is Emmanuel Macron wise to take such a strong stance in favour of change in Lebanon? Can France obtain the necessary reforms from a local political class who has been defending the status quo for decades now? What explains the French President’s visit to Baghdad? Are we witnessing a re-kindling of French foreign policy in the Middle East?

There are parallels to be drawn between the Lebanon and Iraq situations. Both countries are "rich" and yet, currently in ruins. In the case of Iraq, benefits from oil rent have been reduced by never ending internal conflicts, chaotic governance as well as the drop in hydrocarbon prices over the last couple of months. In the case of Lebanon, the financial power that underpinned the Lebanese economy started to fade in recent years, before ultimately crashing. In Lebanon as much as in Iraq, civil society has begun to call into question a system redistributing power among confessional parties known to be corrupt and preventing any potential for change. The repression of these last few months has cost the lives of 500 protesters in Iraq, which was at least not the case in Lebanon.

From a geopolitical point of view, both countries are enduring the aftermath of phenomena affecting the whole region: the weakening of Sunni communities met by the rise of stronger Shia communities, the increasing predominance of militias or other non-state actors, the risks of regional terrorist threats, or the prolongation of the Assad regime in Syria. Both Iraq and Lebanon have limited sovereignty, not only due to internal strife, but also because of interference from rival tutelary powers - Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, increasingly, Turkey.

A call for "inclusive sovereignty"

The theme of France's support for the sovereignty of the Levant States provided a sort of conceptual underpinning for the President's proposals during his two visits. Several days before his trip, Emmanuel Macron, had proposed the idea of "inclusive sovereignty" in a remarkable speech at the Forum Moyen-Orient Méditerranée (Middle Eastern Mediterranean Forum) in Lugano. Such a formula may reflect an attempt to implicitly refute reproaches that France itself practices foreign interference. However, this fits with a tradition of French diplomacy in the region, which has always believed that a return to stability requires the restoration of state authority. Nowadays, French diplomats would add "not just any state", but one that is able to include the diversity of local populations’ identities and to respond to the demands of civil society.

The message is brave, but it doesn’t please regional powers and certainly not Iran, who has powerful tools of influence in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (multiple affiliations) and evidently, Syria. Neither does it please political elites who are sharing power in the countries concerned, nor non-state actors such as militias, who are acting as relays for foreign interference. Meanwhile, civil society can only embrace this message to the extent that it is calling, in fine, for the reinstatement of a state order. On this last point, let us note for example that, in the plane on his way to Beirut on September 1, Emmanuel Macron told Politico he believed he was the only one who could save the system in Lebanon, even while he had harshly condemned this very "system" on August 6. From one visit to the other, his discourse appeared to have adjusted to now highlight administrative and financial reforms rather than a "new political pact".

In Lebanon, France can activate different levers beyond its historical role and deep understanding of the country.

How could a call for "inclusive sovereignty" be successful in this region given the current circumstances? In Lebanon, France can activate different levers beyond its historical role and deep understanding of the country. The President of the French Republic is the undisputed spokesperson for the donor community. The country’s advanced state of decay and the impact of the August 4 explosion have rendered political resistance to calls for reforms far less palatable.

It is even possible that Iran and France share a mutual interest in "saving" Lebanon. Hezbollah itself appears to be more and more on the defensive, considering how obvious its responsibility in the parking of tons of ammonium nitrate on the Beirut port’s dock 9 is.

In fact, a new Prime Minister was appointed shortly before Emmanuel Macron’s for his second visit. Paris had most likely another name in mind than Mustapha Adib, a technocrat, quietly discreet and with close ties to the system in place. Rumour has it in Beirut that the political class would have preferred to avoid having a new Prime Minister appointed by September 1 as a way to dissuade the French President from returning at the date initially suggested. On the sidelines of celebrations marking the anniversary of Greater Lebanon, Emmanuel Macron secured in any case confirmation from the parties that a "government with a purpose" would be formed within 15 days – a rather unusual turnaround that stands in stark contrast to local political mores, which require months to set up a (usually plethoric) ministerial cabinet. The French President also reminded a set of priorities he believed should be at the heart of the new government’s programme: "support for victims of the Beirut explosion and rapid reconstruction of the port, reform of the electricity sector, control of capital flux, judicial and financial governance, fight against corruption and smuggling, reform of public procurement".

From a geopolitical point of view, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah had made positive remarks on the eve of the French President’s second visit to Beirut. On the other end of the spectrum, US Secretary of State Pompeo conveyed his support for the French initiative ("despite a disagreement on Hezbollah" reminded an American senior official). Nonetheless, paralyzing bickering among the Lebanese political class picked up again as soon as the French President had returned to France. It is however expected that Emmanuel Macron won’t give up. His entourage has suggested that individual sanctions could be used to dissuade political figures opposed to the reforms. The President is planning for two conferences to take place in October in Paris, one regarding the follow-up of emergency aid and another focusing on reforms expected from Lebanon by the international community. In typical Macron fashion, he is also scheduling a series of meetings with the Lebanese authorities.

The return to Baghdad?

In Iraq, France disposes of fewer levers than it does in Lebanon. French authorities would have liked to orchestrate France’s "great return" to Baghdad after the defeat of ISIS and the general elections of May 2018. At the beginning of 2019, the conditions seemed favourable for Iraq to enjoy a new dynamic and even potentially play a positive role in the region. French authorities, at the time, had announced their intentions of "doubling cooperation" with Iraq across all areas. In fact, visits by senior political figures never stopped between the two countries. Several factors interrupted these thrilling prospects. Street protests led the government to resign, leading to months of vacuum at the head of the country. Meanwhile, the economic situation deteriorated due to the drop in oil prices, as well as internal troubles and the effects of Covid-19. Finally, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a key leader of Shia Iraqi militias, killed by an American air strike in early January, resulted in an escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States playing out in the country.

If President Macron has chosen to stop in Baghdad for a layover on his way back from Beirut it is because, once again, there is a slim chance of the situation opening up in Iraq. A new Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is now in place, known to be close to the Americans, but having also received tacit support from the Iranians. He is surrounded by heavy weight ministers, such as Finance Minister, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is supported, for now, by the "silent majority" though he is certainly not civil society’s top choice. His attempts to take back control over the security apparatus is already irritating Iran and its local allies. Difficult internal disputes to resolve are undoubtedly ahead of him. In any case, he is trying his best to rebuild contacts with Washington, as well as all the countries in the region, and he appears to be up to the task of conducting necessary reforms.

Baghdad appears to be wishing for France to act discreetly and as a trailblazer for other partners, mostly Europeans in the first place, but also amongst the Gulf states or other Arab countries.

In these circumstances, the French must carefully measure what their contribution might be. None of the ambitious Franco-Iraqi economic projects from the last couple of years have managed to truly take off, despite a billion euros landline of credit set up by Paris. It is rather on London that Financial Minister Ali Allawi is relying to restore Iraq’s financial credibility. France is rather expected to show up on matters of culture and education, matters of defense and security – for which cooperation was never stopped – and evidently in the political and diplomatic field. On this last point, a programme of "inclusive sovereignty" could potentially respond to the aspirations of many Iraqis, if implemented with cautious determination. Baghdad appears to be wishing for France to act discreetly and as a trailblazer for other partners, mostly Europeans in the first place, but also amongst the Gulf states or other Arab countries.

All in all, isn’t France’s renewed investment in the Middle East, shown by Emmanuel Macron’s twin visit, a disproportionately risky bet in comparison with the gains that can be reasonably expected? A possible answer is "nothing ventured, nothing gained". Besides, it is important for France – if possible, in coordination with other European countries including the British – to remain invested where it can in the region. Especially in the context of post-US elections, it is very likely that large tractions or new dramatic tensions will return.




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