France's desire to face both ways in the Middle East will lead to hard choices

Emmanuel Macron is most comfortable when his country can play the man in the middle, but seeking to be a stable player in the Middle East requires hard choices, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Emmanuel Macron. Patrick Kovarik / AFP
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As the year turned, France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was preparing for a historic visit to Iran. Relations between the two countries had been difficult for many years; they cooled in the years after the US invasion of Iraq, but nosedived after the contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. When Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013, he made it a priority to re-establish ties: within a month of his election, Mr Rouhani had met the French president Francois Hollande.

Towards the end of last year, as Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, Mr Rouhani extended a further invitation to the new French president Emmanuel Macron: come to Tehran. If it happened, it would be an unprecedented trip for a major western power. No British, American or French head of state has visited Iran since the 1979 revolution. Mr Macron was not even born at the time of the last French presidential visit in the early 1970s.

Yet Mr Macron did not dismiss it and, tellingly, the Elysee Palace let it be known publicly that a visit was being considered. The foreign minister's scheduled visit last week was meant to lay the groundwork for a possible state visit this year. The visit was cancelled (or technically postponed) after protests erupted against the Iranian regime and Mr Macron called Mr Rouhani to urge “restraint”. The unpredictability of the Middle East had claimed another best laid plan.

Mr Macron has made no secret of his desire for France to matter in the Middle East and across the globe. He sees an opportunity: with the United States and Britain turning inwards for their own reasons, and Russia still, in Barack Obama's caustic phrase, "a regional power", Mr Macron believes that only France can exercise western leadership. His visit to China this week is meant to present France as the most dependable ally in the West.

But it is in the Middle East that Mr Macron has sought influence first. He wants France to be an honest broker in the region, the stable and dependable western country. Yet he will learn, most likely the hard way, that trying to be a stable player in an unstable region requires hard choices – choices that Mr Macron seems very reluctant to make.

In his own words, Mr Macron is seeking balance. “The French line,” he said in the autumn as tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalated, “is to work for peace and not choose one side or the other.” He has tried to stay close to Iran, continuing the nuclear deal of 2015, but also criticising Iran's expansionist policies. By doing so, he hopes to placate France's traditional allies in the Gulf.

He sought to tread the same delicate line when Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister, first resigned and then was reinstated in November. Shortly after the initial news broke, Mr Macron flew to Riyadh for talks, before hosting Mr Hariri in Paris the following week.

He did the same in December when he visited Qatar, urging reconciliation, a month after opening Louvre Abu Dhabi. He has criticised France's involvement in both the Nato attack on Libya and his predecessor's early opposition to Bashar Al Assad.

In the eight months since coming to office, Mr Macron has visited 19 countries, the majority in Africa and the Middle East. But even that doesn't tell the full story. A wide unbroken arc of the Arab world, from Morocco on the Atlantic all the way across to the UAE on the Gulf, has been offered presidential diplomacy, either being visited by Mr Macron, or being hosted by him in Paris. No other European or western country has done as much in such a short time in the Middle East.

His frenetic diplomacy and belief in the power of his own charisma is startlingly similar to Nicolas Sarkozy, another French president who took a great interest in world affairs. In time, he may dust off Mr Sarkozy's plan for a “Mediterranean union”, to bring Europe and the Mediterranean Arab world closer.

Yet the difficulty of remaining balanced in a region still politically rebalancing should not be underestimated. Despite France's championing of the nuclear deal with Iran, it has not curbed Tehran's enthusiasm for interfering in the region. At some point, hard choices have to be made. Sides have to be chosen.

The last week has seen two significant examples. First, Mr Macron had to decide whether, in light of the crackdown on protests in Iran, he could allow his foreign minister to continue his visit. He decided he could not: the diplomatic fallout would be too great, so Tehran would have to be disappointed.

Then, three days later, he hosted Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Paris. In remarks since he came to office, Mr Macron has tried to face both ways, criticising Ankara for a crackdown in the wake of an attempted coup 18 months ago, while also praising the country as an "essential" partner. But as ties between Turkey and Europe's powerhouse Germany fray, he had to deliver a blunt message: membership of the EU is closed to Turkey. Mr Macron tried to soften the message by offering an as-yet undefined "partnership", but Mr Erdogan was furious.

Such a high-wire act is astonishingly hard to pull off, especially in the Middle East, and especially at this moment of revolutionary change. There are simply too many flashpoints, whether they come from expected quarters, such as the tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, or unexpected ones, perhaps in increased tensions between Morocco and Algeria, two countries Mr Macron has tried to court.

Moreover, in seeking influence, Mr Macron has limited options at his disposal, as Mr Sarkozy also found. The clout of the US in the Middle East extends from its military bases to its financial aid packages. France can replicate neither.

Mr Macron may prefer to play the man in the middle, but in the Middle East, eventually, even if reluctantly, foreign powers always choose a side. The twists and turns of a region in the midst of significant change are simply too great to stand on the sidelines.