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Emmanuel Macron: PR man for Mohammed bin Salman?

The French president is in denial about how his government facilitates Saudi violence at home and abroad

As they attempt to sound distressed over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Western governments are understandably being less than candid about their records of facilitating Saudi violence at home and regionally.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been among the worst culprits, recently claiming that it was false to say Saudi Arabia is a major client of the French arms industry. Macron's defence minister, however, told lawmakers those arms sales were crucial for French jobs.

France is the world’s third-largest weapons dealer, with exports rising considerably during the past decade. Saudi Arabia was its second-largest customer in that period.

With his background in banking, Macron can surely calculate that there is big money involved: Saudi Arabia bought more than €11 billion ($12bn) in French arms between 2008 and 2017. 

Audacious spin

Since becoming president last year, Macron has acted as something of an image consultant to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. When the crown prince visited Paris in April, Macron hosted a dinner for him and Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister. Photos were circulated of the three admiring Delacroix’s masterpiece Liberty Leading the People. All the tension caused by the Saudis holding Hariri hostage several months earlier was magicked away.

Macron pledged full support for Saudi Arabia’s “security” as it warded off ballistic missiles fired from Yemen. It was audacious spin. Saudi Arabia is the chief aggressor in Yemen; its military offensive has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis to such an extent that the UN is warning a famine may be imminent. Yet, Macron has cast Saudi authorities as blameless victims.

Assurances from Paris that the weapons have only been used for defensive purposes along the Saudi-Yemeni border have been contradicted by the arms industry

European Union law stipulates that weapons may not be sold abroad if there is a "clear risk" they will be used in conflicts. France is not respecting its obligations. The Saudi air strikes on Yemen began in 2015. Last year, the Saudis ordered more than €1 billion ($1.1bn) worth of weapons from France, according to Le Monde.

Assurances from Paris that the weapons have only been used for defensive purposes along the Saudi-Yemeni border have been contradicted by the arms industry.

One French firm, Nexter, has bragged about how the region’s armies were strongly impressed by the performance of its tanks in Yemen. Flying tankers made by Airbus have been used to refuel the F-15s that are vital to the Saudi war effort, and France has provided training to Saudi military pilots within the past year.

Oil supplies

Following Khashoggi’s murder, numerous corporations withdrew from the Future Investment Initiative, a Riyadh conference. Total, the French energy giant, nonetheless insisted on participating. It is not hard to work out why: Saudi Arabia is a top supplier of oil to France.

Total has been active in Saudi Arabia for decades and has lately been eyeing opportunities in its petrol station market. The "reformers" of Riyadh are now allowing women to drive. Under different circumstances, Total might very well be presenting its new investments as a contribution towards gender equality.

People attend the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on 24 October 2018 (AFP)
Earlier this year, Macron said that France and Saudi Arabia shared a determination to "fight actively against all forms of terrorism". If Macron really holds that rosy view, he should read a recent paper from Institut Montaigne, a think-tank with documented connections to his political "movement" En Marche.

Saudi Arabia, that paper notes, has been exporting the extremist religious ideology since the 1960s through "theoretically autonomous institutions" that are actually at the heart of the state. As well as seeking to have a monopoly on Islam, the Saudis display an "expansionist fervour" that has been “supported by funding from the oil industry”.

Eroding civil liberties

Scholar Gilbert Achcar has called Saudi Arabia "the least democratic, most misogynist, most fundamentalist country on the planet". 

Rather than holding Saudi authorities responsible for promoting extremism, France has entered into lucrative arms and oil deals with them. France has simultaneously eroded civil liberties at home. Dissent has been severely curtailed through a far-reaching "counter-terrorism" bill. French Muslims have been treated as a suspect people. Intentionally or otherwise, state policy encourages bigotry.

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A few months before he became president, Macron described colonisation as a “crime against humanity”. More recently, he acknowledged that France practised torture in Algeria.

Macron made his admission due to persistent campaigning by the widow of Maurice Audin, a political activist killed by French forces in Algeria 61 years ago. France’s meddling in the Middle East stretches back much further. Through the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord, Britain and France in effect carved up the region between them. The imperial powers of that epoch chose a network of strongmen to run affairs in their interests.

Lip service has subsequently been paid to the idea of self-determination. Yet the philosophy - for want of a better word - behind Sykes-Picot still pervades in the foreign ministries of London and Paris. Power, cash and influence trump almost everything else.

More interventionism

Expecting Macron to bring any kind of progressive change would be naive. The programme on which he fought the 2017 election indicated that he wished to be even more interventionist in the Middle East than his predecessors.

About half of all French arms exports are destined for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is not the only state to have used French weapons in its attacks on Yemen: up to 80 French tanks sold to the United Arab Emirates - part of a Saudi-led military coalition - have been deployed during that war.

France’s conduct in the Middle East proves it is more than happy to facilitate violence

Egypt, meanwhile, bought more than €4 billion ($4.5bn) in French weapons from 2012 to 2017. Some of the Egyptian troops who committed the August 2013 massacre against protesters in Cairo fired from armoured vehicles supplied by France.

Macron apparently does not want to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War with a military parade. His decision may disappoint US President Donald Trump, according to The Telegraph. It does not mean that Macron has come out as a pacifist: France’s conduct in the Middle East proves it is more than happy to facilitate violence.

- David Cronin is a journalist and activist living in Brussels. His book Balfour's Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel is published by Pluto Press. He is also the author of Europe's Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011) and Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris on 10 April 2018 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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