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France in the Middle East and North Africa

France’s balancing act in the Middle East since October 7

Since the October 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel, France has claimed to approach the war with a strategy of balance based on three pillars pertaining to security, humanitarian, and political considerations.

France’s “Arab policy” consisted of forging privileged ties with countries of the Arab world in a time when the region was not as divided as today. This policy came under review during the 2000s under French President Jacques Chirac. Known for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chirac was one of the last proponents of the policy but he also initiated a warming of relations with Israel; later to be continued by Nicolas Sarkozy.[i] The French show of solidarity with Israel seems to confirm the persistence of Israel-friendly policies into the 2020s. Messages of political support and the security pillar of Paris’s diplomatic efforts suggested a French-style “bearhug”, also justified by the fact that France mourns 41 nationals among the victims of the Hamas attacks and counts several hostages, three of whom are still being held captive in the Gaza Strip[ii]. Thus, France has taken a few initiatives against Hamas, notably at the EU level where it began work on a European regime targeting Hamas leaders in a joint initiative with Italy and Germany[iii].

At the same time, France was the first major Western country to call for a ceasefire in Gaza[iv]. This position has also been backed up by its voting record at the UN. In the Security Council, even though France has not introduced her own draft so far, its ambassador voted in favor of Brazilian and Emirati resolutions for a ceasefire, including those vetoed by the US. In the General Assembly, France approved Jordanian and Egyptian resolutions unlike other key EU countries.

In the political pillar of its foreign policy strategy, French officials have been increasingly vocal that a Palestinian state is a must for any long-term political settlement[v]. Paris has condemned[vi] statements by Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, calling for the “emigration” of the Gazan population and the re-establishment of settlements in Gaza as well as the construction of 1,800 settlement units in East Jerusalem.

Finally, France has been active on the humanitarian front. On November 9, Paris hosted the first international humanitarian conference for Gaza[vii] and raised its humanitarian aid to the strip to 100 million Euros for 2023 (including 77 million Euros for UN agencies).

On humanitarian aid, France has chosen to cooperate with two important regional players: Jordan and Qatar. In January, Doha and Paris jointly delivered medicine to the hostages held in the Gaza Strip following a rare breakthrough in indirect talks between Israel and Hamas[viii]. The two countries have also been coordinating the evacuation and treatment of injured civilians by French forces on site as well as in Doha with the help of the Dixmude helicopter carrier. France has also participated in joint airdrop operations with Jordan[ix] (such operations are unique to Jordan while humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip remains restricted).

This is also indicative of France’s preference for international initiatives involving regional players. There are several reasons for this. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian question, France’s direct influence is limited which requires working with other countries. Beyond that, Paris pays close attention to the perceived legitimacy of her actions in particular and does not want to fuel the “West vs. the Rest” narrative in general.

Admittedly, in the immediate aftermath of October 7, France co-signed several joint declarations[x] with the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany, reassuring Israel of its unwavering support. However, France’s position vis-à-vis the US-led coalition in the Red Sea is indicative of a reluctance to be boxed into overly Western configurations, except when it is politically impossible to do otherwise, as in the case of the fight against Hamas.

Although a French frigate shot down Houthi drones on December 10 and France was among the participants of the US-led operation, Prosperity Guardian, Paris has not participated in airstrikes in Yemen carried out by the coalition. Rather, the French now seem eager to seize the opportunity to push forward the European defense agenda. At the European Council on January 15, President Macron advocated for more cooperation between EU member states in the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea. An EU naval mission could be deployed in the coming weeks but with measured objectives in line with the caution displayed by both Paris and Rome[xi].

But the litmus test for French influence in the region probably lies with Lebanon. Here, Washington and Paris see eye to eye on the necessity to avoid an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah. Hence their coordination for a new modus vivendi on the Israeli-Lebanese border, combining Hezbollah’s retreat (per UN resolution 1701) with territorial settlements[xii].

As the former mandate power, France has retained close ties with Lebanon and her current mediation, seemingly accepted by all parties albeit not as visible as Washington’s, draws on several levers. Penholder on Lebanon at the Security Council, Paris has 700 blue helmets on the ground as part of UNIFIL. Furthermore, following the Beirut port explosion and the subsequent crisis, Paris has become heavily involved in the Lebanese political process. Even as Washington was growing less interested in Lebanon, France maintained its engagement as the election of the President of the Republic and the formation of a full-fledged government are still pending almost two years after the last parliamentary elections. Owing to its policy of distinction between the political and military branches of Hezbollah, France is in a good position to engage the Shiite organization. France has for long been working with Riyadh, Cairo, and Doha too.

Skeptical about the risks and the cost-benefit ratio of a controlled escalation in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, France is actively preparing for tomorrow. In that regard, if current negotiations secure a truce in Gaza for a few weeks[xiii], additional margins for all-round diplomatic talks could be pursued.

France’s stance since October 7 have earned her accusations of inconsistency. Many linked it to internal political concerns with France having among the biggest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe[xiv]. But there also seems to be a diplomatic bet aimed at keeping channels open with as many actors as possible. Time will tell if this approach, which sometimes leaves national and international public opinion puzzled, can eventually allow Paris to play a substantial role in the diplomatic process that will supersede the current state of war.

[i] Rosenthal, J., (2008). ‘Nicolas Sarkozy: A True Friend of Israel?’, World Politics Review, 27 June 2008, retrieved from Nicolas Sarkozy: A True Friend of Israel? | World Politics Review.
[ii]Berman, L., (2024). ‘France seeking verifiable proof that medicines reached hostages in Gaza’, The Times of Israel, 6 February 2024, retrieved from France seeking ‘verifiable proof’ that medicines reached hostages in Gaza | The Times of Israel.
[iii] Reuters, (2023). ‘Italy, France, Germany call for ad hoc EU sanctions on Hamas’, 11 December 2023, retrieved from Italy, France, Germany call for ad hoc EU sanctions on Hamas | Reuters.
[iv] BBC News, (2023). ‘France calls for immediate and durable ceasefire in Gaza’, 17 December 2023, retrieved from France calls for ‘immediate and durable’ ceasefire in Gaza – BBC News.
[v] Ministere de L’Europe et des Affaires Etrangeres, (2023). ‘Israel/Palestine: Understand France’s position in nine points’, retrieved from Peace Process – Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (diplomatie.gouv.fr).
[vi]Berman, L., (2024). ‘France says Smotrich, Ben Gvir fueling tensions with resettlement talk’, The Times of Israel, 3 January 2024, retrieved from France says Smotrich, Ben Gvir ‘fueling tensions’ with resettlement talk | The Times of Israel.
[vii] Corbet, S., (2023). ‘French President Macton hosts Gaza aid conference and appeals to Israel to protect civilians’, AP News, 9 November 2023, retrieved from Israel-Hamas war: Officials gather in Paris to find ways to get aid to Gaza | AP News.
[viii] Jobain, A., Magdy, S. and Lidman, M., (2024). ‘Qatar and France Broker Deal to Send Medicine to Hostages in Gaza as War Rages On’, Time Magazine, 17 January 2024, retrieved from Gaza Hostages Update: France, Qatar Broker Medicine Deal | TIME.
[ix] Jordan Times, (2024). ‘Jordan, France airdrop medical aid to Gata’, 5 January 2024, retrieved from Jordan, France airdrop medical aid to Gaza | Jordan Times.
[x] White House, (2023). ‘Joint Statement on Israel’, 9 October 2023, retrieved from Joint Statement on Israel | The White House.
[xi] Tidey, A., (2024). ‘EU naval mission to protect ships in Red Sea set to be launched on February 19’, Euronews, retrieved from EU naval mission to protect ships in Red Sea set to be launched on 19 February | Euronews.
[xii] France24, (2023). ‘France FM in Lebanon for talks on calming Israel border’, 18 December 2023, retrieved from France FM in Lebanon for talks on calming Israel border (france24.com).
[xiii] Ravid, B., (2024). ‘Israel proposes 2-month fighting pause in Gaza for release of all hostages’, Axios, retrieved from Israel proposes 2-month ceasefire in Gaza for release of all hostages (axios.com).
[xiv] Adghirni, A., (2023). ‘France Is on Edge After Israel-Hamas War Reopens Old Scars’, Bloomberg, 16 October 2023, retrieved from France On Edge As Israel-Hamas War Opens Old Scars With Jews and Muslims – Bloomberg.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.