Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France. He stood for office on a platform of radical change and a departure from the status quo.
He promised to reinvent the French state, revitalise its economy, and change the country in social terms. In foreign policy, Macron’s stated policy was no less bold.
He gave blockbuster interviews to international magazines like Der Speigel, in which he argued for ‘heroic’ politics and foreign policy, for France to reinvent and reinvigorate the European Union, but also to be independent of the European and NATO line when necessary.
Macron spoke of the need for an ambitious and even immodest French position on the global stage.
His ambition for France meant that he offered his country as a mediator in international disputes, including between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2017 following an unsanctioned referendum that voted for Kurdish independence.
It meant that he offered to serve as the primary European partner of an isolated United States under the widely distrusted administration of Donald Trump, of whom many European countries were wary.
Macron also engaged with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as equal and almost unaligned counterparts. Macron also took up cudgels on the EU side against the United Kingdom, which had just voted to leave the union.
All of this assumed a unique role for France, under new leadership.
‘I think it was motivated by a desire to centre France as a world player, primarily, over any ideological and strategic issues,’ Rashad Ali, a resident senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told The New Arab.
Macron’s book Revolution, published before his election as president, described French military missions in Libya and Mali as unpopular with both locals and the French people. He contrasted these interventions with what he considered France’s principled criticism of the Iraq War, and the ‘martyr[dom] of Aleppo’.
But after one term in office, Macron was both unable and unwilling to resolve French involvement in the Sahel and Libya.
In the Sahel, French forces found themselves bogged down alongside the United States, increasingly unpopular, as governments in Mali changed and sought other foreign assistance. French troops were drawn down, supplemented by American and United Nations forces, and finally expelled, with the French ambassador, by the Malian junta in 2022.
Now French troops have been replaced by Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group private military company.
In Libya, a more ambitious French policy meant supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, alongside Russia and the UAE, in its bid to win control of the country and capture the capital, Tripoli. This bid failed in 2020, after which overt French support slackened.
France sought in 2021, akin to other conflicts, to offer itself as a mediator between Haftar and the Government of National Accord – something undermined, fundamentally, by accusations of covert French support for Haftar’s forces. Macron acknowledged that France needed to recover lost credibility if it was to participate in any future settlement in the country.
French intervention in Libya mirrored a broader effort to reshape the Mediterranean states, on ambitious lines.
Critics say that this push, primarily by France but also endorsed by EU states, shaded into overconfidence. France mounted international conferences including the Western Mediterranean Forum, also known as the 5 + 5 Dialogue, designed to develop and stabilise Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, with the intention of decreasing migration into Europe.
A part of this grouping, the Summit of the Two Shores western Mediterranean conference, was intended to cooperate between the north and south of the Mediterranean on initiatives designed to decrease migration into Europe.
These summits and allied initiatives have not significantly developed the southern Mediterranean. Nor have they prevented destabilising events like Haftar’s part in the war in Libya, or Tunisia’s slide into personal dictatorship under Kais Saied. Macron spoke to Saied in late 2021, as the new regime was taking shape, and was apparently assured that ‘national dialogue’ would continue in Tunisia.
The French position that has taken shape during Macron’s years in power seems to be that dictatorships or military rule on the Mediterranean coast are acceptable if they allow for either repression or economic development which can slow or stop the movement of migrants into Europe.
In Lebanon, Macron has played a large role, as both mediator and political participant. Macron interceded in the extended confinement of Saad Hariri, then Lebanon’s prime minister, in Saudi Arabia in 2017, including bringing Hariri back to Lebanon via Paris.
After the Beirut explosion of 2020, Macron visited the city and claimed in a press conference on the streets that France would participate in the creation of a new political system in Lebanon. This did not transpire.
‘He wanted to maintain stability in Lebanon. This is the old formula that all the international community but especially the Europeans and the French have had in mind … since even before the crisis – Lebanon’s stability is more important than anything else,’ Hanin Ghaddar, Friedmann Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told TNA.
‘Even if the Lebanese wanted freedom, everyone preferred stability, which is why there have been so many compromises in Lebanon. [Macron’s] initiative was basically about stability, and that included compromises … which means that he has to talk to everyone including Hezbollah and Michel Aoun,’ Ghaddar added.
‘It is clear that eventually, that did not work. It failed not because stability was not achieved and he decided to change his mind. What happened is that he realised that even these compromises were not enough for Hezbollah and allies … because they wanted to take it all and they could take it all, and they played him. This is what he realised.
‘Eventually he shifted his policy for Lebanon; he is no longer talking to everyone. He is trying to work more with the Saudis on Lebanon than with the Iranians,’ Ghaddar said.
Macron’s view is one of a world in which France can be both nimble and strong enough to interpose itself between combatants and opponents, to affect outcomes as the world’s premier diplomatic broker.
This has included repeated failed efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. France has claimed success in setting up humanitarian convoys and evacuations of besieged cities, none of which have worked.
‘It was built on a faulty premise of the multi-polar world in which France could be seen as a power alongside Russia and the US, with France leading the European bloc and reducing the UK to merely a US ally,’ said Ali.
‘It was divorced of a democratic strategic view and the naive and ill-informed ‘realpolitik’, that was anything but realistic,’ Ali said.
As Macron attempts to win a second term in office, his foreign policy gambits have largely failed. France has been involved in pan-European and Mediterranean politics, but it has largely not had success as either a participant or as a broker.
Under Macron, French policy has taken many years to realise the bitter experience that France is unpopular in the Sahel and will be replaced by more pliant foreign fighters if necessary, and that despised warlords like Haftar are not tickets to victory in civil conflicts like Libya and supporting them precludes later acting as mediator.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has no interest in negotiation in Lebanon when it holds so much political and military sway, and far from national dialogue, would-be dictators like Saied have untrammelled power on their minds.
So far, France under Macron continues to believe it can mediate between Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps this war, if Macron is re-elected, will prove another moment of necessary but difficult education to the contrary.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.