Political Analysis

What to Expect When You Are Campaigning: France in the Middle East and North Africa in 2022

With the upcoming French presidential election, year 2022 might just be about closing 2021

2022 will be the last year of Emmanuel Macron’s first term as President. In that configuration, the French authorities are likely to seek to close the lines of action they have initiated in the past four years. To do so they will have to make the most of the few months during which high-level diplomatic events and diplomatic initiatives will still be possible, between January and April. French policy in the Middle East and North Africa will be affected by this timeframe.

Three main axes of efforts: managing crises, countering terrorism and making the most of the French Presidency of the European Union

In France's view, it does not mean that the transatlantic relation is not relevant anymore but that, operationally speaking, European countries such as France must get increasingly involved in the areas where their core interests are at stake.

The core assessment that underpins French policy making in the region remains unchanged since 2017 and the election of President Emmanuel Macron[i]. The assessment made in Paris is that the United States, the primary actor in the region, is accelerating the trend by which it is following a narrower definition of its ‘core interests’[ii]. Practically speaking, it means that the US is focusing more on the Indo-Pacific and less on the Middle East and North Africa. In Paris’ view, this dynamic has been ongoing since the beginning of the 2010s and has been steady under three successive American administrations[iii]. To prove their point, French authorities point at American decisions such as the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the last-minute decision by Barack Obama not to bomb Syrian chemical facilities in the fall of 2013[iv]. The narrow focus of the Trump administration on Iran and the much-debated withdrawal of Afghanistan concluded by the Biden administration in August 2021 also seem to confirm the validity of this assessment. In France’s view, it does not mean that the transatlantic relation is not relevant anymore but that, operationally speaking, European countries such as France must get increasingly involved in the areas where their core interests are at stake, namely, North Africa, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and other neighboring regions[v]. In a nutshell, France, and to a broader extent the European Union, must seek to provide their own security.

The underlying drivers of the French policy in the Middle East and North Africa build upon this assessment. First and foremost, ensuring security at home requires projecting stability in neighboring regions and countries through an increased engagement in crisis management and resolution. Second, pursuing counter-terrorism efforts in neighboring regions is paramount to preserve Europe and France’s security. These underlying drivers pretty much reflect on what has animated French policy in 2021 and previews what could be France’s priorities in the Middle East and North Africa in 2022, a year in which France will have the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Playing a leading role in managing crises: Libya, Lebanon, Iraq

Since it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France is often inclined to play a role in solving international crises around the globe. When it comes to instability in the region, France considers that what happens in the Middle East and North Africa, the neighboring regions of Europe[vi], has an impact in France and more broadly in the European Union. Hence, France has been very much engaged in regional crisis management in the past year and might well continue to do so in 2022. This has been particularly true concerning three major regional topics: Libya, Lebanon and Iraq.

In Libya, the situation remains very uncertain. The Berlin process, which France participates in and supports, led to major progress. The Libyan parties signed a ceasefire agreement on October 23, 2020, providing a roadmap for the departure of foreign forces and fighters[vii]. The Libyan political Dialogue Forum established a new interim executive branch on February 5, 2021[viii], renewing political institutions for the time since December 2015. The roadmap that was adopted planned for holding presidential and legislative elections on December 24, 2021[ix]. Despite those positive steps, the dynamic has slowed down. Regarding elections, local stakeholders are reluctant to make the necessary steps to prepare for the polling[x]. On security, despite implementing the first steps of the roadmap[xi] – the ceasefire is effective, prisoners were swapped between the parties, the coastal road in central Libya was reopened – the withdrawal of foreign forces and fighters remains out of reach until now[xii]. In that context, France, Italy and Germany co-chaired an event during the last UN General Assembly[xiii] during which Foreign Minister Le Drian announced that France would host a Summit on Libya[xiv] on November 12, 2021. This is likely to be a major event for French diplomacy. It will be the third Libya-related event to be organized by France under Emmanuel Macron’s presidency after the La Celle Saint-Cloud meeting in July 2017[xv] and the Paris Conference in May 2018[xvi]. It is probable that the core objectives of the summit will be to get Libya on track for elections as well as obtaining commitments from foreign stakeholders, such as Turkey and Russia, regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces. At the end of 2021 and in 2022, France will probably focus on the follow-up and the implementation of the steps that might be agreed upon in Paris, in particular regarding the holding of elections and the rollback of foreign military presence in the country.

At the end of year 2021 and in 2022, French authorities are likely to maintain pressure on the new Lebanese government in order to get it to adopt much-needed reforms in the fields of infrastructure, administration and energy.

France and French diplomacy have also devoted significant energy towards Lebanon, in particular during Emmanuel Macron’s term. France has in particular sought to promote accountability in the Lebanese political system and support long-awaited structural reforms in the country. Paris held three conferences in support of the population of Lebanon[xvii], in particular after the August 4, 2020, blast that devastated Beirut Port, causing emotional reactions worldwide. In April 2018, France had hosted the CEDRE conference, designed to gather international support to strengthen the Lebanese economy[xviii] and had also reinvigorated the International Support Group for Lebanon[xix]. To push these ambitions, France was also paramount to provide the European Union with a regime for European targeted sanctions on Lebanon, a tool which has not been used so far. The regime was adopted on July 30, 2021[xx]. Lately, French diplomatic pressure played a role in getting a new Lebanese government formed, under the leadership of Najib Mikati, a former Lebanese Prime Minister. He was welcomed at the Elysee on September 24, 2021, where President Macron reiterated his expectations towards the new government[xxi]. At the end of year 2021 and in 2022, French authorities are likely to maintain pressure on the new Lebanese government in order to get it to adopt much-needed reforms in the fields of infrastructure, administration and energy. Echoing the perceived impatience of the Lebanese society, Paris seems to consider the Mikati government as the last chance to prevent an economic collapse and to transform Lebanon[xxii]. They may also follow closely the eventual resumption of talks between Lebanon and the IMF. Last but not least, France will keep a close eye on the preparation of elections, as Lebanon is supposed to hold presidential and general elections in 2022[xxiii]. To move forward on all those pressing issues, Paris will likely count on its close partnership with the United States on the Lebanese crisis[xxiv]. Paris and Washington have indeed deployed much shared effort to encourage regional unity and to pressure the Lebanese political elite[xxv].

In Iraq, France is determined to continue the fight against ISIS alongside its Iraqi partners (see below). But it is also a country upon which France has been focusing politically. It has been particularly true in 2021. With the key support of France, the Iraqi government hosted what was deemed the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on August 28 and 29, 2021[xxvi]. It was the result of months of discussion between French and Iraqi authorities. The aims of this conference were dual. At a local level, it aimed at reaffirming the support of local countries for the security of Iraq, the fight against ISIS, the need for holding free and transparent elections in Iraq as well as commitments to be engaged in the reconstruction of the country. At a regional level, it sought to promote Iraq as an area of non-interference where regional powers could cooperate. Ultimately this meant creating a new format of regional dialogue, which could contribute to the stability of the region and the easing of tensions. The conference can be considered as a diplomatic success as the participation level was high and the follow-up of this initiative has been ensured, partly as a result of France’s efforts. First, it managed to gather high-level representatives from countries that are at odds regarding other regional issues[xxvii]. In addition to President Macron and Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, the King of Jordan, President Sisi, the Emir of Qatar, as well as the Prime Ministers of Kuwait and the UAE all participated in the conference. At ministerial level, the conference saw the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey sit in the same room. Secondly, Iraq and France might have succeeded in maintaining the “Baghdad format” over time. As a follow up to the conference, participants convened a meeting in New York on September 21 in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly[xxviii] in this so-called “Baghdad format”. It institutionalized the role of France, Iraq and Jordan in the follow-up and implementation of the commitments made[xxix]. It was agreed to host the next summit in this format in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 2022[xxx]. In the coming months, it is expected that France will work to ensure the effective implementation of those commitments and will demonstrate its continued support to Iraq. Paris might also try and use the Baghdad format to initiate a broader discussion on regional stability.

In addition to those three crises in which France has been engaged diplomatically, other cases inviting growing concern, such as in Tunisia, might trigger increased French political intervention.

Dealing with a continuous terrorist threat

Fighting terrorism has been and will remain a priority of France's diplomacy.

As the ongoing trial of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris reminds us, France was struck by numerous terrorist attacks in the past years. It is even considered to be the country that has suffered the biggest number of attacks since 2014 in the West[xxxi]. Therefore, fighting terrorism has been and will remain a priority of France’s diplomacy. In addition to the actions carried out at a domestic level, France’s counter-terrorism strategy in the Middle East and North Africa will likely follow the same lines of action as before: enhancing regional cooperation, maintaining military presence on a number of fronts, and stabilizing liberated areas in Syria and Libya, for instance[xxxii]. France will stay engaged in the Global coalition against Daesh to mitigate the risks of a resurgence of ISIS in the Syrian-Iraqi Jazeera. French authorities might also keep a watchful eye on the issue of French jihadist returnees from the Levant, which remain a threat. In the Sahel, the evolution of Operation Barkhane and the ramp-up of European Task Force Takuba will be major challenges. Finally, fighting terrorism financing, a priority at the beginning of President’s Macron’s mandate, is likely to remain a key component of France’s strategy in that matter.

Making the most of the French Presidency of the European Union

In the end, much of Paris’ efforts to counter threats, and manage crises and project stability in the Middle East and North Africa are closely associated with the concept of Strategic Autonomy, which a number of member states including France have been promoting within the European Union[xxxiii]. As a matter of fact, France will hold the Council of the European Union Presidency from January 1 to June 30, 2022. In line with French efforts in the region, one of the milestones of the French presidency should be the formal adoption of the Strategic Compass of the EU. The Compass is expected to stimulate a coherent strategic approach among the EU’s Member States. Concerning the Middle East and North Africa, the work surrounding the Strategic Compass is important because part of it aims at strengthening the ability of the EU to “uphold its freedom of access”[xxxiv], in particular in the maritime and air spaces. Namely, the EU is working on a common approach towards re-emerging challenges such as piracy and illicit trafficking as well as access denial strategies from global and regional powers. Finally, France is also expected to continue its efforts to enhance Mediterranean cooperation within the EU in the Med-9 format, which convened in Athens in September 2021[xxxv].

[i] Macron, E., 2017. Discours de La Sorbonne Available at: <http://www.elysee.fr/video/x623khx&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[ii] Le Drian, J., 2021. Audition devant la Commission des Affaires étrangères de l’Assemblée nationaleAvailable at: <http://event.assemblee-nationale.fr/video.11161640_6140af4c54818?timecode=712160&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Macron, E., 2021. A conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Atlantic Council (February 4, 2021).[vi] Ibid.
[vii] United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), 2021. Agreement for a Complete and Permanent Ceasefire in Libya. Geneva.
[viii] UNSMIL. 2021. Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams remarks following the closing of the vote on the new executive authority – LPDF, 5 Feb 2021. [online] Available at: <https://unsmil.unmissions.org/acting-special-representative-secretary-general-libya-stephanie-williams-remarks-following-closing&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[ix] UNSMIL. 2021. Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. [online] Available at: <https://unsmil.unmissions.org/libyan-political-dialogue-forum&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[x] LEDERER, E., 2021. UN envoy: `Spoilers’ are trying to obstruct Libyan elections. Associated Press, [online] Available at: <https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-elections-libya-united-nations-1207213e56ce95d594bea7f7c1d496be&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xi] AL-HAWARI, O., 2021. The Geneva Ceasefire Agreement: Implementation Challenges and Their Impact on Sirte – MEDirections Blog. [online] MEDirections Blog. Available at: <https://blogs.eui.eu/medirections/the-geneva-ceasefire-agreement-implementation-challenges-and-their-impact-on-sirte/&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xii] LEDERER, E., 2021. UN chief: `Mercenaries and foreign fighters must leave Libya’. Associated Press, [online] Available at: <https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-libya-united-nations-1464c8e3ddd759fd45fdc868b7936326&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xiii] France ONU. 2021. France, Germany, Italy : In Libya, “coherent and coordinated efforts” must be made. [online] Available at: <https://onu.delegfrance.org/france-germany-italy-in-libya-coherent-and-coordinated-efforts-must-be-made&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xiv] France 24. 2021. France to host international conference on Libya ahead of scheduled elections. [online] Available at: <https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20210921-france-to-host-international-conference-on-libya-ahead-of-scheduled-elections&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xv] France Diplomatie. 2021. Présentation de la Libye. [online] Available at: <https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/libye/presentation-de-la-libye/&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] France Diplomatie. 2021. Closing Speech by Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian – Conference in support of the Population of Lebanon. [online] Available at: < https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/lebanon/news/article/discours-de-cloture-de-jean-yves-le-drian-ministre-de-l-europe-et-des-affaires&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xviii] France Diplomatie. 2018. Lebanon – CEDRE conference (6 April 2018). [online] Available at : < https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/lebanon/news/article/lebanon-cedre-conference-06-04-18 > [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xix] France Diplomatie. 2019. Lebanon – International Support Group for Lebanon (11 Dec.2019). [online] Available at < https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/lebanon/news/article/lebanon-international-support-group-for-lebanon-speech-by-jean-yves-le-drian > [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xx] Consilium.europa.eu. 2021. Lebanon: EU adopts a framework for targeted sanctions. [online] Available at: <https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/07/30/lebanon-eu-adopts-a-framework-for-targeted-sanctions/&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xxi] elysee.fr. 2021. Déclaration conjointe du Président Emmanuel Macron et du Président du Conseil des ministres du Liban Najib Mikati. [online] Available at: <https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/09/24/declaration-conjointe-du-president-emmanuel-macron-et-najib-mikati-president-du-conseil-des-ministres-du-liban&gt; [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xxii] France 24. 2021. “Macron Urges New Lebanese PM Mikati to Undertake ‘Urgent’ Reforms.” [online] Available at: < http://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20210924-macron-urges-new-lebanese-pm-mikati-to-undertake-urgent-reforms>. [Accessed 3 October 2021].
[xxiii] MEI. 2021. The electoral path may not save Lebanon, but its citizens deserve a chance to walk it. [online] Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/electoral-path-may-not-save-lebanon-its-citizens-deserve-chance-walk-it. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxiv] Department of State, 2021. Joint Statement by the Secretary of State of the United States of America and the Foreign Minister of France on Lebanon (February 4, 2021).
[xxv] US Embassy in Lebanon, 2021. Joint Statement by the Ambassador of the United Stated and the Republic of France to Lebanon (July 9, 2021).
[xxvi] mofa.gov.iq. 2021. Final communique of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. [online] Available at: < http://www.mofa.gov.iq/2021/08/?p=25539 >. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxvii] elysee.fr. 2021. Press Conference given by President Emmanuel Macron from Baghdad. [online] Available at: < https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2021/08/28/press-conference-given-by-president-emmanuel-macron-from-baghdad >. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxviii] mofa.gov.iq. 2021. Tripartite Ministerial Committee of Foreign Ministers of Iraq, Jordan and France to complete preparations for the upcoming Baghdad Conference to be held in Amman. [online] Available at: < https://www.mofa.gov.iq/2021/09/?p=26456 >. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxix] Ibid.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Lorenzo Vidino, Francesco Marone et Eva Entenmann, Fear Thy Neighbor : Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West, ICCT, ISPI, The George Washington University, 2017
[xxxii] France Diplomatie. 2021. Terrorism: France’s International Action. [online] Available at: < https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/security-disarmament-and-non-proliferation/terrorism-france-s-international-action/ >. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxxiii] European Parliament. 2021. The EU strategic autonomy debate. [online] Available at: < https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2021)690532 >. [Accessed 3 October 2021]
[xxxiv] EUISS. 2021. Contested Global Challenges : a multidimensional issue for the Strategic Compass. Workshop held on March 12, 2021. < https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/FR-EUISS%20-%20Contested%20Global%20Commons%20%28Programme%29.pdf >
[xxxv] Greek City Time. 2021. EUMED 9 Summit kicks off in Athens. [online] Available at: < https://greekcitytimes.com/2021/09/17/eumed-9-summit-athens/ > [Accessed 3 October 2021]