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Some Observations on France’s Middle East Strategy


 

Zhao Huijie

Research fellow of IWAAS

Zhaohj@cass.org.cn

 

The diplomatic strategy of France formulated by General De Gaulle after WWII, also called as France’s “global strategy”, is the underpinning philosophy of France’s Middle East Strategy. Through reestablishing relations with its former colonies in Middle East, France has adopted a “pro-Arab” Middle East policy and has carried out various cooperation to help Middle East realize peace and development. This has not only improved relations between France and Arab countries in the region, but also enabled France to set up comprehensive political and economic cooperative relations with the region. Middle East has become an important platform for France to revive its big power status and influence, as well as a place where France and America jostling the most on diplomatic front.

 

I. France’s postwar diplomatic strategy and its interests in Middle East

The bipolar postwar structure of international relations was shaped after the Yalta Conference. But as soon as the War was ended, General De Gaulle, a man of strategic vision, had already started to think about “establishing a West European group independent from the U.S. and the Soviet Union”. In October 1958, General De Gaulle took the helm again, founded the Fifth French Republic and set out to materialize his strategic vision. France ruled under De Gaulle formulated a whole set of domestic and foreign policies with distinctive De Gaulle features, which were latter called Gaullism, and France’s foreign polices decided by De Gaulle were also called “France’s global strategy”. Famous French historian Pierre Miquel once commented on it: “in 50 years, France for the first time restored her tradition, i.e. to establish holistic foreign policies with both principles and practical measures for France’s global interest. De Gaulle had revived French diplomacy, the functions of which in the past were no more than repeating others’ words and sending a few representatives to international organizations.”[1]

De Gaulle’s “global strategy for France” had three main aspects. Firstly, restoring France’s status as an independent big power in international affairs. President De Gaulle reiterated on many occasions that “France is to be France, France is France. It must have its own features, spirits, behaviors and policies.” “France can make special contribution to the world…it is not going to be led by any other country.” [2]When talking about his country’s foreign policy in 1964, De Gaulle said that France should implement a global policy because it is capable of doing so, it is asked to do so and it is France.”[3] Secondly, promoting European integration to counterbalance the U.S. and the Soviet Union. According to De Gaulle, “France is trying to unite Europe…, we want to build West Europe into an integral body so that the world will not just have two confronting giants, but will have another strong power and great center that can wield power wisely. Only Europe can be the one.”[4] Thirdly, supporting the liberation and independence of former French colonies and establishing new cooperative relations with them. De Gaulle once said that one essential job of France’ diplomatic work was to turn its former colonization into cooperation, and its relations with former colonies into effective and friendly cooperative ties. [5]These three aspects together best represented an epitome of France’s postwar diplomatic strategy. Three main ideas were contained in De Gaulle’s diplomatic thinking: to ensure its big power status in international relations, France must get rid of the shadow as a colonial empire of the past centuries and practice strategic contraction; to put itself on par with America, the Soviet Union and the UK, France must promote European integration, especially rapprochement with Germany; to maintain its big power status, an essential condition was for France to follow an independent foreign policy. On December 31st 1962, President De Gaulle stated in a national televised address that if France wanted to make progress on its international front, it must work on two things: “The first was economic, political, security and cultural integration in West Europe so as to be a counterpart of America; the second was assistance to and cooperation with peoples who need help in their modernization process, especially those in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”[6]

The central goal of De Gaulle’s “global strategy” was to guarantee France’s status as a big power. Therefore, he defined France’s diplomatic strategy as “to maintain unique and flexible political and military relations with the two superpowers”. He started with adjusting France’s relations with NATO. In 1958, he pointed out in a memo with American and British heads of state that “NATO could no longer meet the basic security needs of the West world and France has already had a worldwide outreach and influence. Therefore NATO should set up a council consisted of America, Britain and France, which can hold the decision-making power over world political and strategic problems. This tallies with the new circumstances.” [7]As a matter of fact, even before that, De Gaulle had already expressed unsatisfaction about the Anglo-Saxon domination of NATO. “NATO is just a subsidiary organization of the US leadership”, he said, “it should be an alliance of completely equal sovereign states”. Of cause, suggestions made in the memo were not echoed by the U.S. and UK. But France was so committed to its established diplomatic strategy that finally it withdrew from NATO [8]and began to vigorously promote European integration. In 1958, “European Economic Community” was set up. In 1965, three communities were merged and “European Community” was born. All these were important manifestations of De Gaulle’s foreign strategy. [9]

Another goal of De Gaulle’s “global strategy” was to shake off the overhead cloud of France’s colonial past, support its former colonies to be independent and reestablish its relations with them. On September 16th 1959, President De Gaulle put forward the famous “self determination policy”, which became the guideline for France’s endeavor to reestablish and develop relations with former colonies. This was also an important part of France’s efforts to maintain its big power status. France had traditional influence in sub-Sahara region as well as West Asia and North Africa (Middle East). After the War, the De Gaulle government redesigned France’s strategy and interest in Middle East according to the nation’s global strategy. There were mainly three points in France’s Middle East strategy: firstly, actively taking measure to shake off the shadow of colonial past and reestablish relations with its former colonies. One of the important steps of De Gaulle after he was sworn in was his announcement in 1959 that France allowed Algeria to be independent. This action put an end to the serious distraction of “the Algerian question” [10]to France’s foreign relations and got France out of its diplomatic predicament in the postwar international relations. Meanwhile, redefined France-Algeria relations (not as colonizer and colony, but as equal sovereign states) greatly eased France’s strained relations with Arab countries in the Middle East. (The whole Arab world was in favor of Algeria’s independence.) Secondly, adopting a “pro-Arab” Middle East policy and actively developing relations with Arab countries to make the Middle East a platform where France can project its big power influence. After the War, the Middle East was a vital place for France’s international relations. But peace in the region had always been a major obstacle for relations between countries there. France took side with Arab countries on the question of Middle East peace. Its main considerations were: through fully tapping its traditional clout in the region and actively developing relations with Arab countries, France could further expand its influence in postwar international relations and make Middle East a stage of showing its big power status. Thirdly, conducting various types of cooperation with Middle East countries to promote Middle East peace and development. France was enthusiastic about “North-South cooperation” and proffered assistance to developing countries. What De Gaulle and his successive governments have always advocated, the policy of “building North-South Communication Bridge and striving to be the spokesperson of developing countries”[11] was one of the best footnotes of France’s postwar diplomatic strategy. Although peace in Middle East became more elusive after four wars[12], in more than half a century, France has always been a major party of the Middle East peace process and carried out various cooperation with Middle East countries including political and economic assistance, especially with key members in the region in an effort to catalyze peace in Middle East through social and economic development.

France’s Middle East strategy was closely correlated with its traditional political and economic interest in the region, which was continued and expanded after the War. Oil and trade were among the top priorities, especially the former, which was a major consideration behind France’s efforts to develop relations with Middle East countries in postwar period. In the wake of WWII, western industrialized countries were in great need of energy security as a result of their booming economies. Therefore, stable oil supply from Middle East was one of the important economic interests of France, as well as a practical purpose of its Middle East diplomacy. For that end, it set up good economic ties with Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Middle East countries. Another vital interest was trade, the most important of which was arms trade. In mid-1980s, French arms trade with Middle East accounted for over 50% of its total arms export. Arms trade also had a big share in the total bilateral trade volume between France and Middle East countries. Its rapid increase had not only terminated Britain’s long-term trade monopoly in the region, but also enabled France to surpass the taking-off postwar Germany to be the largest trading partner of Middle East among Western countries.  

In terms of political interest, France used Middle East, a region of great geopolitical significance, to exert its big power influence so as to reverse its passive (the independence struggle in Middle East had been a huge impact to French colonization) and alienated (America and Britain had joined hands to dwarf France in international affairs) situation in postwar international relations. Middle East, where different interests and contradictions concentrated, had become a focal point of international politics after the War. France’s relentless diplomatic input in the region was aimed at protecting its traditional vested interestst, and exerting its influence and reinforcing its status as a big power on the international political arena. In dire contrast with America’s pro-Israel Middle East policy, France’s pro-Arab policy helped it not only to develop relations with Arab countries, but also get the upper hand in the contest with America in Middle East. Since De Gaulle, successive French governments have all taken Middle East as an important vehicle and platform to demonstrate its big power status and influence.

II. Main manifestations of France’s postwar diplomacy in Middle East

What France did in Middle East after WWII mainly reflected a proactive diplomatic strategic thinking based on “historical retrospect”. In 1958, De Gaulle decided to “give former colonies self-determination and independence”. This wise decision removed a “bottleneck” for France caused by its colonial past, and created a new opportunity for it to reshuffle postwar international relations in Middle East. Redefined relations between France and Algeria in particular had effectively reversed France’s disadvantageous position in international affairs and reestablished its big power status and influence in the Arab world.

1.        Settlement of the Algerian question was a milestone for the France-Middle East relations.

    President De Gaulle’s statement in 1959 on Algeria’s independence was a vital event that marked the starting point of more favorable diplomatic environment for France in Middle East and the signing of Evian Treaty in 1960 symbolized the development of new relations between France and its former colonies in Middle East. Despite of refashioned relations with Syria and Lebanon, the development of relations between France and Middle East had still been impeded by the unsolved question of Algeria’s independence. Therefore, the settlement of this issue opened up a new chapter for France’s international relations. As a result, the disgraceful colonial past of France was gradually replaced by friendly relations with Arab countries in Middle East, and actively developing relations with them thus became the “key note” of France’s relations with the region. During the third Middle East war in 1967, France stood up to condemn Israel’s occupation of large areas of Arab territory, and asked Israel to withdraw. When Israel bombed Beirut in 1969, the French government again immediately responded by denouncing Israel’s military attacks as “unacceptable and unjustified”, and declared to impose comprehensive arms embargo against Israel. Such friendly relations were strongly felt again during the fourth Middle East war in 1973 when the French government explicitly opposed to America’s proposal to the UN Security Council to pass a resolution calling for Arab-Israel ceasefire and returning to the pre-war status quo. In his statement, French Prime Minister Chaban Delmas said, “Egypt and Syria’s military actions aimed at reclaiming their own territories were not invasion. How could people think that nations and peoples with strong nationalist feelings would allow their lands to be occupied forever and without the hope of a fair and reasonable solution?” When America began to ship large amount of military equipments to Israel, France refused American cargo planes to fly over its territory and forced them to have to take a detour of another 2000 miles over the Atlantic from a German airport to the Mediterranean. In 1975, the French government also took the initiative to facilitate the first “Europe-Arab Dialogue” between the European Community and the Arab League, which led to a historical leap forward for France’s relations with Middle East countries. This friendly relationship paid back handsomely during the world energy crisis after the fourth Middle East war. France was regarded as a “friendly country” by Arab nations and stayed out of the oil embargo list. Oil was shipped undisrupted to France as usual. This was a double triumph for France both politically and economically. After the fourth Middle East war, a strengthened role of French in the Middle East peace process became manifest. It initiated a foreign ministerial meeting attended by EC member states to discuss the Middle East question and steered the meeting to adopt a Joint Statement on Solving the Arab-Israel Conflict. This Statement requested Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territories during the “June 5th War” in 1967, and pointed out that “comprehensive settlement of the Middle East question should take into consideration the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”. This was the first time that France had played a major role in solving the Middle East question (it is the first country in the world who calls for consideration about the rights of the Palestinian people in the peace process), and symbolized France’s debut to be a major player in the Middle East peace process as a big power. 

2.        The “impartial” Middle East policy contributed to the special role of France in Middle East.

After taking office in 1974, Giscard d'Estaing put forward a “balanced Middle East policy”. But in practice he still followed previous “pro-Arab” policy until 1981 when French socialists came into power. François Mitterrand decided to change d'Estaing’s “Middle East line of setting France against Israel” and it was at that time that France truly started to be impartial.

While practicing an “impartial” Middle East policy, Mitterrand continued to treat the France-Arab relations as a priority. In order to remove Arab countries’ suspicion about France’s so called “new Middle East policy”, the Mitterrand government sent several special envoys to Arab countries to talk them off the worries. Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson held a special press conference to publicize the “new Middle East policy”—“although our current position on Middle East has changed somewhat, we remain committed to consistence of policies.” Mitterrand’s impartial Middle East policy was good for a fair and reasonable settlement of the Middle East question. Because over the years, most big powers had been taking sides when they came to the Middle East question, especially America. This had only complicated the question. Mitterrand’s impartial policy was a good start for the international community to participate in the Middle East peace process with more objective position that can accommodate the interests of both sides of the conflict. Mitterrand paid visits to Arab countries and Israel respectively and became the highest-level French leader who ever visited Israel. These efforts opened up even broader international space for France in Middle East, made it a major bridge of communication between Arab and Israel, and also enabled it to play a unique role in the Middle East peace process. Since it maintained contacts and carried out cooperative projects with both sides, it had more leverages to play good offices between the two sides. This was what America couldn’t do despite of the fact that it was still the leading power in the peace process. Moreover, France’s cooperative relations with both sides also contributed to the peace process itself. Mitterrand visited Israel for the first time in 1982 and spelled out France’s proposition and plan for resolving the conflict in his speech at Israel Knesset. [13]Although his proposal was rejected by the Israeli side, it was no short of a strong impetus to the peace process, because it had put an end to America’s long-term domination in the Middle East peace process. Since the 1980s, France has been playing a unique and positive role in the Middle East peace process. It is a major international force that plays good offices between Arab and Israel and it is also the essential power that calls for comprehensive and fair settlement of the Middle East question.

III. Contradiction between French and American Middle East policies in the new century and its implication

French and American foreign strategies had clashes ever since the end of WWII and even more so during the post-Cold War period. The two countries had fundamental disagreement over what kind of world order they wanted. France advocated for a “multi-polar world jointly governed by major powers of the world”, while America wanted a “uni-polar world dominated by one superpower”. Jacques Chirac pointed out in 1991 “America attempts to build a new world order and wants others to regard it as the sole only structure of the world. This is unacceptable to the international community. A uni-polar world or an America-centered world is not possible.”[14] After a “left-right coalition” government was set up in 1998, France was more independent diplomatically and more relevant as a world power. Over major international issues in Middle East—be it the crisis of weapon inspection in Iraq or the peace talk in Middle East, France had all acted as what a major power should do. The contradiction between the French and American Middle East strategies mainly focused on the Iraqi crisis.

In February 2002, in the name of Saddam Hussein developing WMD and refusing inspection of the United Nations, President Bush declared a threat of force to “topple the Saddam regime”. President Jacques Chirac immediately denounced it as “reckless”, and explicitly stated that France resolutely opposed to the American plan of bypassing the United Nations and its Security Council. Chirac also spelled out specific suggestions about how to defuse the Iraqi crisis: resuming WMD inspection in Iraq firstly and working out a detailed timetable then; military action would only be optional if Iraq continues to refuse to apply to the UN decision. France also issued a joint statement together with Germany, asking America to get the authorization of the UN before taking any military attack. However, after 9/11, unilateralism was gaining momentum in America. Therefore, America was determined to “topple the Saddam regime by force” no matter what the UN’s position was. This was a typical example of America’s unilateral strategy toward Middle East in the new century.

The conflicting position of France and America over the Iraqi crisis had caused a big division in the postwar international relations—hawks led by America and Britain vs. doves led by France, Germany and Russia. Disagreement between French and American Middle East strategies would also exert a major impact on the future world and Middle East situation.

A, America’s unilateral strategy in Middle East is weakened. The Iraq war was the “boldest action” America has ever taken in practicing unilateralism in Middle East after the end of the Cold War, and it has costed America dearly, putting the country under huge pressure as a result. After the Iraq war and during Iraq’s reconstruction, America rushed to seek cooperation with other major powers including France, a sign that it has backed off from promoting unilateralism in Middle East. This is because it is yet to be an absolute superpower of the world and not strong enough to decide on everything alone. Therefore, its unilateralism is contained to some extent and will not be the only principle of America’s international relations. After setting up hegemony over international affairs through unilateral actions, America also needs to seek allies and their support by extending overtures to other big powers for cooperation.

B, the strategic relations between France and America will shift to partners instead of allies. Over Middle East affairs, France and America have more in common than disagreements. For example, they all oppose to terrorist activities and try to promote the Middle East peace process. These consensuses lay the foundation for the two countries to cooperate in Middle East. But in the new century, what France wants is no longer the traditional trans-Atlantic relationship of strategic allies, which is always America calling the tune, but rather a strategic partnership of two equals, which means “joint decision-making based on full consultation”. This has always been an objective embedded in De Gaulle ‘s “global strategy”. While for America, what it needs is to maintain the relationship with its European allies within the framework of cross-Atlantic alliance. During the Iraq war, the postwar French-American strategic alliance had already completely broken up despite of America’s reluctance, and their future relations will only shift towards a strategic partnership of greater equality. 

C, France’s Middle East strategy and its interest in the region will face more challenges. Firstly, America’s war against Iraq has actually exacerbated regional instability. When the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks are still bogged down, sabotaging regional peace and stability, the question of Iraq reconstruction, which is a complicated, arduous and protracted one, has become another major problem that bears on Middle East’s peace and stability in the coming years. This will be a serious challenge to France’s Middle East strategy and interests in the region as well. Secondly, America-dominated Iraq reconstruction does not simply have an economic dimension, but also involves political interests (regime building and big power politics etc.). Whether the America-supported Interim Government can successfully build up an independent sovereign state, and what America has rapt until now from this war will all pose potential threats to France’s established strategy and vested interests in the region. Especially after taking view of America’s lion share in the big “reconstruction” cake and its public announcement that “no anti-war countries are allowed to bid for the $18.6 billion reconstruction contract”, France has felt its interests in Middle East being threatened already (French media has blasted America for ditching its European allies’ interests). Finally, America’s plan to set up a “pro-America” Iraqi regime is the most direct threat to the decades-long French-Iraqi special relationship.[15] The important economic skate between the two countries can best explain France’s reluctance to topple the Saddam regime. Now America has “rooted out” the Saddam regime, meaning that one of France’s most important “cards” in Middle East is also gone.

 



[1] Pierre Miquel: History of France

[2] Selected Words of De Gaullecompiled by Institute of International Affairs

[3] Selected Words of De Gaulle, compiled by Institute of International Affairs

[4] Selected Words of De Gaulle, compiled by Institute of International Affairs

[5] Selected Words of De Gaulle, compiled by Institute of International Affairs

[6] Selected Words of De Gaulle, compiled by Institute of International Affairs

[7] Big Power Relations into the 21st Century, by Zhu Chenghu

[8] In March 1959, France withdrew from NATO and pulled out the NATO-commanded French Mediterranean Fleet. In 1966, it officially declared withdrawal from NATO and in October, NATO Council moved out of France.

[9] De Gaulle and the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman are founders of the European Community. De Gaulle’s “Greater Europe” and Schuman’s “Schuman Plan” laid the foundation for European integration. The establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 was the very beginning of the European Community. Schuman is thus called “Community Father”.

[10] Algeria used to be a part of French territory and the largest overseas province of France. Such relations lasted for 132 years. The independence of Algeria had been a big headache for France and was one of the biggest obstacles in France’s international relations after the War.

[11] Study on Features of France Diplomatic Strategy and Actively Developing the China-France Relations, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

[12] Wars in 1948、1956、1967 and 1973

[13] There are 5 major points: 1. according to the principles of the UN 242 resolution, the Arab and Israeli sides conduct direct negotiations to peacefully settle the conflicts. 2. Arabs must recognize Israel’s right to security and survival within its boundaries. 3. Israel and the PLO should hold dialogues on the basis of mutual recognition. 4. Palestinians should enjoy self-decision right and should have their own state. 5. PLO as a military organization, can only participate the Middle East peace talk after it recognizes Israel’s survival right and security right. Mitterrand’s vision for the future Palestinian state was the Gaza strip and the West Bank, and Jerusalem should be given a special status.

[14] Big Power Relations into the 21st Century, by Zhu Chenghu

[15] France and Iraq set up friendly and cooperative relations as early as in the 1970s and Iraq has been a key state for France in developing relations with Middle East countries.


Copyright: Institute of West-Asian and African Studies, CASS

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