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Francois Hollande and the Middle East: The controversial legacy of a 'normal' president

Hollande's legacy includes a dramatic increase in arms supplies to Gulf regimes but questionable results in Syria and on Palestine

While he may have contributed to the collapse of his socialist party in the 2017 elections, President Francois Hollande can at least claim to be successful in one respect: selling billions of euros worth of arms to Middle East regimes.

When Hollande came to power in 2012, French exports of military equipment were worth $5.3bn. By 2016, the orders amounted to more than $22bn, a remarkable performance by the French military industry under Hollande.

This recipe for success was not limited to the Arab world – the Australians, for example, ordered more French submarines than the Saudis – but the contribution of Arab customers (Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar and, of course, Saudi Arabia) to the French military industry's dynamism was significant.

The performance of the French military industry was remarkable under the Hollande presidency

Hollande reaped the rewards of a political context, the instability and violence that followed the Arab spring, favourable for France to increased arms sales opportunities. At the same time France lacked the inclination to push its allies on human rights, and made the most of the country's image as a “friend of the Arabs” – probably unjustified – since De Gaulle’s presidency.

However, France’s foreign policy over the past five years cannot boast of many diplomatic and strategic victories.

The diplomacy of balance

Relations between France and two of its former colonies, Algeria and Morocco, were largely unproblematic under Hollande. What were thought to be Hollande's warm sentiments towards Algeria were confirmed by the content of his December 2012 and June 2015 visits, and by his decision to participate in the March 2016 commemorations of the ceasefire that followed the Evian Agreements that ended Algeria's war of independence from France.

Hollande succeeded in keeping both Morocco and Algeria satisfied, a considerable feat given how much passion these files usually generate

On the Moroccan side, the controversy that followed the filing in a French court of a complaint against the chief of Moroccan counter-espionage, Abdellatif Hammouchi, in February 2014 was quickly eclipsed by a more promising period including a visit of the French president to Tangier in September 2015.

Indeed, during that visit, a bilateral agreement was signed for the training of Moroccan imams planning to eventually preach in France. France seemed anxious to show that it was aware of Morocco's attempts to encourage moderate Islam, in contrast to Algeria with it's so-called "moderate" imams.

Hollande thus succeeded in keeping both Morocco and Algeria satisfied, a considerable feat given how much passion these files usually generate

The post-Arab Spring relations between France and Tunisia benefited from a clear sky under Hollande’s presidency. His term marked the end of the extravagances of the Sarkozy era, with the controversies around Michèle Alliot-Marie, Boris Boillon, and others, laid to rest.

France, Tunisia’s first economic partner, was somewhat late in translating its support to Tunisia. But in January 2016, Paris released $1.1bn to help Tunisia with socio-economic programmes. In addition, the two countries agreed on their security cooperation, a critical factor for France given concerns over terrorist risks.

Libyan quagmire

In Libya, the track record was more dubious. Nicolas Sarkozy always took responsibility for his actions in the country, but his successor’s criticism did not result in an effective approach.

French diplomacy has been slow and shy on the Libyan issue

Questions over France's presence in Libya were answered in July 2016, when a helicopter carrying three agents of the DGSE (France's overseas intelligence agency) crashed in Benghazi. The suspicions were confirmed three months later, when five DGSE operatives died when a plane about to carry out a missiong over Libya crashed in Malta. These incidents seemed to confirm France’s interest in ensuring the smooth running of the anti-Islamist strategy favoured by general Khalifa Haftar.

For all that, and even though the oil company Total has been trying to develop business opportunities in the country, French diplomacy has been slow and shy on the Libyan issue. The timid French diplomatic positioning is particularly striking when compared with the vigorous diplomacy of Italy and the United Kingdom.

'Hollande of Arabia'

Hollande took great care of his relations with the Gulf countries, notably Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, three countries behind military orders worth billions of euros.

But very likely, it is the relationship between Hollande and Saudi Arabia that we will hear about for a long time to come. The former president, nicknamed “Hollande of Arabia” by some, appears to have been at ease with his pro-Saudi inclination, while his predecessor, Sarkozy, was leaning towards Qatar.

This stance was solidified because the French-Saudi military relationship (despite the vagueness surrounding its details) kept France’s military-industrial complex busy by injecting billions of euros. This explains why François Hollande was invited to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in May 2015, why he awarded the Legion of Honour to the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef in March 2016, and his silence about the situation in Yemen.

Hollande awarded the Legion of Honour to bin Nayef 'for all his efforts in the region and in the world in the fight against terrorism and extremism' during his visit to Paris (AFP)
Yet Hollande managed to balance this relationship with Saudi Arabia while leaving the door open for dealing with Iran.

Hassan Rohani’s accession to the Iranian presidency, combined with the seal of conformity guaranteed by the nuclear agreement, left France unable to oppose the reintegration of the Islamic republic into the international community.

Admittedly, until the end of his term in office, former foreign minister Laurent Fabius cast an extremely suspicious glance on any possibility of granting Iran nuclear capabilities, pursuing Sarkozy’s policy and rallying Hollande behind his point of view. But when the US under President Obama had validated the return of Iran to the concert of nations, any obstruction on the part of France would have proved useless.

Rouhani’s visit to Paris in January 2016 was a strong sign of this French bid to consolidate bilateral relations. Hollande went so far as considering investment opportunities in Iran, a request French manufacturers had made for years.

The Syrian setbacks

Syria cannot be left out when tracking Hollande's record in the Middle East. If, in 2012, the French president seemed to hesitate about which attitude to adopt in the face of events, he quickly opted for a strategy that would facilitate the departure or the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

Recognition of a Syrian ambassador for the Syrian opposition, facilitating of the strategy of the armed groups fighting the regime, joint action with the United Kingdom to lift the European arms embargo imposed on rebels, attempts to promote UN resolutions, in addition to France’s aspiration to highlight the responsibility of the Syrian regime in the use of chemical weapons, both in 2013 and 2017.

Hollande struggled until the end to find the breakthrough which would bring an end to the Syrian regime

Essentially, Hollande remained in search of an international mobilisation – preferably led by the US – which would overthrow the Syrian president; an opportunity that at the end of his term, he would seem to regret never having been able to find. “Understanding” Turkey’s far more assertive intervention on the ground – albeit motivated by the risk of the Islamic State (IS) group – Hollande was even tempted for a while with the idea of assassinating Bashar al-Assad, but struggled until the end to find the breakthrough which would bring an end to the Syrian regime

Things got somewhat complicated when the question of bombing IS's positions in Syria arose. Engaged in the anti-IS coalition in Iraq since 2014, France initially refused to extend its action to Syria. It changed its stance at the end of 2015, deciding to conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria to carry out “strikes” against IS, an evolution of strategy that nevertheless excluded any intervention on the ground.

France’s participation in the anti-IS bombing campaign in Syria did not prevent the attacks on the Bataclan (November 2015) and in Nice (July 2016). Focusing entirely on a security approach while eluding questions of French policies in the region, the French government intensified its resolve in its struggle against IS, opting in return for a lessening of its criticism of Bashar al-Assad. Even in his official reaction to the Khan Sheikhoun gas attack in April 2017, Hollande appeared less confrontational towards Assad.

Palestine postponed

On the issue – always crucial – of Israel and the Palestinian territories, one might think that French diplomacy over the past five years has been somewhat more promising.

This is reflected in France’s support for Palestine’s bid to gain the status of a non-member state at the UN in November 2012; or in the fact that France voted in favour of a Palestinian resolution at the UN, giving three years to Israel to withdraw from the territories that it has been occupying since June 1967 – among other things.

However, important as they may be, these steps have not succeeded in raising the stature of France among Palestinians or the Arab world in general. Nor did they show that he actually wanted to find a solution – and in this case a fair solution – to Israelis and Palestinians.

'The solution will never be imposed by the international community, never'

– Francois Hollande at the CRIF dinner, March 2017

His refusal to recognise the state of Palestine before the end of his term - and his last speech as president before the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF) in March 2017, in which he stated that “the solution will never be imposed by the international community, never”– eventually symbolised legacy of the Hollande years in the Middle East: a record that questions whether he ever had a strategic vision, considering the many contradictions displayed during his term, notably regarding the defence of human rights, of which France claims to be guarantor.

Egypt is another example. In April 2016, referring to Hollande’s visit to Cairo, the media praised the French president’s courage for mentioning the question of human rights to his “annoyed” Egyptian counterpart.

However, in addition to what was actually weak criticism of the situation in Egypt by the French head of state, less attention has been paid to the fact that France, in a position of strength, confirmed the signing of several investment contracts during the same visit.

Once again, compared to France’s supposed diplomatic potential, one can think of Hollande’s record in the Middle East  as one that, despite some qualities, was no better than average.

 - Barah Mikaïl is the founder and director of Stractegia, a Madrid-based centre for research and strategic action in North Africa and the Middle East providing analysis of political, economic and social perspectives in Spain. He is also an Associate Professor of Geopolitics at Saint Louis University in Madrid, specialised on Middle East and North Africa issues, and a former senior researcher on Middle East issues at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE, Madrid, 2012 -2015) and the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, 2002-2011). He has written several books and publications, including, most recently, Une nécessaire relecture du “Printemps arabe [A Necessary Re-reading of the “Arab Spring”], Editions du Cygne, 2012

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

Photo: The former French president François Hollande (AFP).

This piece originally ran on MEE's French website

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