Faced with dwindling soft power, France is aiming to play the hero in the Middle East and North Africa to enhance its economic and political interests while positioning itself as a dominant actor in the region.
Being a champion of global economic and cultural influence has long been at the top of France’s priorities. Yet in the last year, its soft power took a hit, owing to boycotts of French products from parts of the Islamic world after its apparent anti-Muslim policies, and its crackdown on protestors and media. Consequently, France has embarked on multiple diplomatic crusades while seeking to adopt a leadership ole in various conflict situations, as a means of salvaging its reputation.
Recently, Iraq has been of particular interest to President Emmanuel Macron. Seeking to expand France’s influence in Iraq, Macron visited the country twice since 2020. The first visit came in September 2020, when he voiced support for Iraq’s sovereignty. A second but more crucial visit came last August, when Macron visited the ruined city of Mosul, a former Islamic State (IS) stronghold in Iraq, while meeting various Iraqi ministers, including Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi.
During his latest visit on August 28, Macron said he plans to keep French troops in Iraq, despite United States’ planned withdrawal by the end of 2021. The announcement was unprecedented, given France’s previous limited involvement in Iraq. Indeed, Paris has managed to maintain positive relations with Baghdad and has avoided bearing the destructive legacy that the US and UK have in Iraq, because of its opposition to the 2003 invasion.
Paris has managed to maintain positive relations with Baghdad because of its opposition to the 2003 invasion.
Playing the Savior
France alone would struggle to carry the weight of being Iraq’s guardian with only 800 soldiers stationed in the country. The troops were deployed largely for counter-terrorism purposes, especially with the prospect of an IS resurgence. Moreover, France would have to compete with powers like Iran and China, which have eyed up their own spoils in Iraq. It would therefore be a challenge for Paris to fill the void that Washington’s departure would create.
Yet for France, these public relations overtures to Baghdad are merely a continuation of Macron playing the hero in such crises. Critics accused him of acting like the “white savior” after he visited Lebanon, a former French colony, in August 2020, following the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port that month. It seems that Iraq, which still faces instability, is France’s next target.
Another area of interest for France is Libya. Despite a ceasefire announced in October 2020, the North African country has endured a rocky journey towards a democratic transition, with presidential and legislative elections now scheduled for December and January respectively. Yet with an ongoing rift between Libya’s transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, reflecting the old divisions between western and eastern Libya, France offered to host a conference in November, to ensure the December presidential elections proceed as scheduled.
France offered to host a conference in November, to ensure the December Libyan presidential elections proceed as scheduled.
During the announcement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Paris wants the elections to be kept to schedule and stressed the need for the “departure of foreign forces and mercenaries,” during a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.
Seeking influence over Libya’s political future is nothing new for France, which spearheaded the 2011 NATO intervention to support the Libyan opposition against Muammar Gaddafi. Additionally, under Macron’s auspices, Paris steered peace talks and provided diplomatic and material backing to Khalifa Haftar during his campaign to conquer the capital, Tripoli.
Though a contradiction of interests may be apparent, as Paris enabled Libya’s latest conflict and is now sponsoring peace initiatives, France is acting competitively to ensure it can become a dominant actor in the country’s political process.
Economic and Geopolitical Interests
France’s desired patronage of these countries’ futures also comes with political and economic benefits. The Baghdad Conference on Partnership and Cooperation, held on August 28, saw France aiming to assert itself as “a partner to the Iraqi government in its concerns and a sponsor of Iraq’s regional and international interests,” according to an Iraqi official.
On September 7, Iraq’s oil ministry announced Baghdad struck a deal with the French oil giant Total Energy, worth $27 billion, including $10 billion in infrastructure, which will later allow the financing of a second stage of investments worth $17 billion.
France’s support of Libya’s stability and building ties with key political actors also ensures that French companies can operate there freely. In June, representatives of Medef (Mouvement des Entreprises de France), France’s largest employer federation, met with leading Libyan officials including Mohamed Dbeibah, Libya’s interim Prime Minister, to discuss talks over reconstruction. Prior to that, Total started new talks with Libya’s transitional government in November 2020, to re-develop the country’s oil fields.
Unremitting rivalry with Turkey is also a driving factor of France’s assertive regional politics.
Unremitting rivalry with Turkey is also a driving factor of France’s assertive regional politics. In 2020, Ankara’s intervention to repel Haftar’s offensive irked Macron and prompted France’s attempts to undermine it in both Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s offer to help rebuild Libya also threatens Paris’ interests in the North African country.
Despite an apparent rapprochement between the two countries this year, France’s rivalry with Turkey continues to be apparent. As France faced another diplomatic spat with Algeria recently, after Macron suggested that Algeria was never a nation before France colonized it, he alleged that “Turkish propaganda” was behind Algeria’s opposition to France.
Clearly, France’s foreign policy objectives not only aim to advance its soft power and geopolitical influence, but also act in defiance of its perceived rivals. Yet Paris’ agenda of intervention and saviorism for its own personal gain does not bear peoples of the region at its forefront.
While it is indeed important to provide security in countries like Libya and Iraq, which have experienced conflict and instability, France should ensure its foreign policy alignment is consistent with the efforts of the United Nations to support genuine stability in these countries.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa region. He has particularly covered Gulf issues and Western foreign policy in the region, having delivered numerous talks and articles on these topics. He has been published in Carnegie Endowment, Middle East Eye, the New Arab, TRT World and many others. He has also worked for Al Sharq Forum, where he mostly researched the UAE’s regional foreign policy. A graduate of the University of Exeter, Jonathan studied History and Middle East Studies.