Key points

President Macron has managed to truly “reset” France’s policy in the Middle East and the Maghreb, in particular thanks to a very active policy of personal networking. However, results are not tangible yet, neither on Libya nor on Syria. Similarly, while France has started to renew its relationship with the Maghreb, much remains to be done to overhaul and develop cooperation mechanisms.

Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron’s France appears as a potentially decisive player in the crisis surrounding the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). To what extent can France play a moderating role on this particular issue, but more generally in the context of escalating regional tensions that many signals seem to point to?

Key dates

14 june 2017 - 15 june 2017

Emmanuel Macron visits Morocco

june 2017

8 november 2017 - 9 november 2017

Emmanuel Macron visits the United Arab Emirates

november 2017

6 december 2017

Emmanuel Macron visits Algeria

december 2017

7 december 2017

Emmanuel Macron visits Qatar

1 february 2018

Speech by Emmanuel Macron to the People's Assembly in Tunis

february 2018

8 april 2018 - 9 april 2018

Official visit from Mohammed bin Salman to Paris

april 2018

14 april 2018

Western strikes on Syria (led by France, United States, United Kingdom) in retaliation for suspected chemical attacks

Campaign promises

During the campaign, Emmanuel Macron identified France’s role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a major axis of his foreign policy, were he to be elected.

While avoiding to really go into detail, his statements highlighted a series of issues, such as fighting against terrorism and extremism, managing migration, renewing France’s relationship with the Maghreb and, of course, contributing to the resolution of several crises (Libya, Syria). He also emphasized the need for a stronger European policy in this region.

On the Syrian conflict, the candidate’s stance spread some confusion: sometimes, he would argue for bold interventionism, and at other times, he would insist on the need for a new diplomatic roadmap, which would include the creation of a contact group, be less insistent on Bashar al-Assad’s departure, and wish for a reinforced dialogue with Russia.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the candidate supported a somewhat “classic” French position: a two-State solution.

Regarding France’s alliances in the Middle East, Emmanuel Macron advocated for a re-examination of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – suspected to support destabilizing organizations in the region – and a neutral approach to the Sunni / Shia conflict. The candidate also defended dialogue with Iran and the preservation of the nuclear agreement, provided that Tehran would continue to abide by its commitments.


After a few months in duty, President Macron has started to “reset” the French policy regarding the Arab and Mediterranean world. His policy is the result of a personal commitment, as demonstrated by the early initiative of a meeting in Paris of the two main protagonists of the Libyan crisis – Fayez al-Sarraj and Marshal Khalifa Haftar – on 25 July 2017, by Emmanuel Macron’s numerous trips – Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Qatar, Tunisia -, or by the hosting in Paris of a great number of regional leaders – Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, President of Egypt, Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, President of Lebanon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, and more.

Frequent phone calls took place with key personalities, such as Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, etc.

President Macron’s commitment has 3 main characteristics:

  • A willingness to be blunt, which certainly has its limits (on human rights in particular) but which remains significant – for instance in Maghreb, vis-à-vis President Erdogan, or in the conflict between Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other.
  • An ability to keep a balanced relationship with partners that are themselves opposed by strained relationships. The President managed to build trusting relationships with leaders in the Maghreb, a sustained dialogue with MbZ, MbS and Rouhani, as well as balanced exchanges with Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu.
  • A strong continuity on a wide range of topics – some of the expected breakthroughs have not taken place, neither in Syria, nor when it comes to the “alliances” in the region, nor even on terrorism, nor on the relationship with Russia regarding regional policies, nor on the European policy towards the region…


Emmanuel Macron’s policy has reached its first limits in the management of open crises. The first example is Syria: the contact group proposal has been disregarded, the search for a dialogue with Russia and a change in language regarding Bashar al-Assad’s fate have not significantly strengthened France’s position in the conflict. However, over the last few weeks, we have witnessed a shift, which resuls from President Macron’s willingness to act in Syria. For this reason :

  • He chose to maintain a military presence in the North-East of Syria, in the areas recently freed from ISIS, and insistedd that the Trump administration also remain strongly involved in controlling and stabilizing the North-East of Syria, despite the American President’s instinct, which pushes for the withdrawal of troops. Mr. Macron seems to have scored precious points on this topic over the course of his meeting with President Trump on 24 April, during his state visit to Washington, DC.
  • He played an important role in the airstrikes conducted on 10 April by the France-United Kingdom-USA coalition, which were led in response to the last chemical attacks in Ghouta. This military action allowed the President to lend credibility to the red line on the use of chemical weapons he had set in May 2017, when he received President Putin in Versailles.
  • Finally, he reveals his commitment to inscribe these military operations within a political strategy, yet again paving the way towards a variety of options (inviting a delegation of the Syrian Democratic Forces at the Elysée Palace, as well as NGOs providing humanitarian relief, communication with the Russian President, etc.).

Clear-cut threats about the “red lines” drawn during Vladimir Putin’s visit at Versailles (on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and on humanitarian access) lead the President to face problems regarding the implementation of his policy.

In Syria once again, political developments (Geneva, Sochi) but mainly developments on the field (attacks on Ghouta despite the UNSC Resolution) have revealed an enduring marginalization. However, President Macron fully assumes the holding of a military presence along American and Syrian Democratic Forces in North-East Syria. His government opposes funding projects for reconstruction for as long as no political transition takes place in Damascus.

On the Libyan issue, the impetus to mediate, given by the UN at the beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s mandate, has as of yet proved inefficient. Some observers are actually raising questions about France’s real motive in Libya and accuse the country of complacency with Marshal Haftar. On Yemen, France’s continuous support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is yet unable to convince them to engage in a crisis exit strategy.

However, the President’s profile and his political voluntarism allowed him to position France as an actor of “new crises” – or at least as a potential one.

Emmanuel Macron managed to remain distant from tensions opposing Qatar and its neighbors, using them to the benefit of his agenda to fight terrorism. After that, his personal engagement allowed for the resolution of the crisis between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Saudi Arabia, thus reinforcing the French involvement in Lebanon in favor of the preservation of stability.

Above all, Emmanuel Macron appeared, as months went by, as the main intercessor between Iran and the Trump administration in a crisis provoked by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal on 8 may 2018. Again, a major shift occurred during President Macron’s state visit to Washington from 23 to 25 April :

  • On the one hand, Macron’s statements at the end of his visit indicating that he believed President Trump would leave the nuclear deal on 12 May shattered the taboo that had, until then, surrounded this option.
  • On the other hand, by presenting a coherent plan completing the JCPOA with three additional parts (post-JCPOA, ballistic missiles and regional stability) in order to bring forward a “new deal”, President Macron launched the debate on what comes after the American withdrawal from the JCPOA.

On other topics – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the revitalisation of the relationship with countries in the Maghreb, and even the fight against terrorism -, President Macron’s first steps have been a curtain-raiser. Policies remain to be defined and means to be mobilized, particularly in the Maghreb. In this regard, the European dimension the candidate claimed any French policy in the Middle East should have during the presidential campaign has not really materialized. This might partly be the consequences of uncertainties specific to Europe’s current state (e.g. Germany), but France’s partners suspect this in fact reflects the continuity of somewhat “Gaullist” reflexes, which prioritize France’s autonomous action over the search for a common European approach.

And now?

3 main topics will require ambitious answers from the Macron administration in upcoming months, which will determine France’s policy in the Middle East.

  • What “doctrine” will be implemented? The Tunis speech, despite its general scope, was not understood as a “founding” speech. It might have been the sweeping phrase of the President (“If we follow Saudi Arabia, Trump and Israel’s rhetoric, it will lead us to war”), which has best described his approach so far. If the President wishes to reaffirm France’s position in the region by taking into account today’s realities, a balanced stance on the Israeli conflict is not sufficient anymore to generate the sympathy of public opinion in Arab countries. Without, however, putting this claim aside, other labels should be put forward too, especially the modernization of societies and institutions (rejecting Islamism, keeping authoritarianism at distance) and the role of Iran (integrating the Islamic Republic in the region and in globalization but renouncing to its goal of regional domination).
  • What will his position on Iran be? President Macron’s challenge is to find a way to sustain the nuclear agreement without the US, or at least to deal with a dismantling of the deal in the “least bad” conditions as possible the American to be followed by an Iranian repudiation of the deal. This is clearly the point of the plan he presented in Washington. Is the search for a “new deal” a realistic policy? While European partners have expressed their determination to pursue with the original deal, what diplomatic action can they lead, now that they are confronted with an American Hard exit? How can they react to the Iranian declarations, stating that while Tehran wishes to stay in the accord, it refuses any and all negotiations regarding its missiles and its regional power?
  • What means will the President allocate? Another major token of France’s policy in the Middle East for the region to genuinely start afresh would be to upgrade all of France’s cooperation and mutual trade devices. In particular regarding the Maghreb, they have to be reviewed and boosted to stimulate better synergy between these countries’ development and French objectives of domestic security. Institut Montaigne has published specific recommendations on the French policy in the Maghreb, but a similar kind of effort should be implemented for the Levant and to a certain extent for Gulf countries.