Is There a Macron Doctrine in the Middle East?

Under President Emmanuel Macron, French foreign policy in the Middle East went through a transformative shift, revealing a clear break with his two predecessors—Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2021-2017)—and a move toward a realpolitik, opportunistic approach. The question arises, does Macron’s leadership style represent an extension of the traditional diplomacy of former presidents Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969) and François Mitterrand (1981-1995), or is it a new doctrine that could reshape French foreign policy? This shift has yet to achieve a more impactful French influence in the Middle East, as Macron continues to grapple with a difficult balancing act of interests at home and abroad.

Macron and the “Gaullo-Mitterrandian” Guiding Principle

During his presidential campaign in May 2017, Macron affirmed that “I want to hold a Gaullo-Mitterrandian line internationally: I want a France that knows how to build peace.” Once elected, this ultimately became the defining theme of his foreign policy, one that presumably combines the legacy of the two French presidents. The Gaullo-Mitterrandian guiding principle, which began with the Fifth Republic in October 1958, emphasized the independence and neutrality of France in global affairs, most specifically on issues related to the Arab world—often to the extent of distrust in dealing with US policy-makers. Furthermore, this tradition was sensitive to the sovereignty of other states from external intervention. Such guidelines were evident in the stance of President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), who was a right-wing conservative Gaullist, in the period leading to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and vis-à-vis the Arab Israeli conflict; his policies earned Chirac credibility and goodwill in the Middle East and allowed Paris to play an active and accepted diplomatic role in the region.

However, the gradual shift toward aligning French foreign policy with that of the United States was already underway after the end of the Cold War. It was Chirac who, in 1996, began the process of negotiating France’s return to NATO, which eventually officially happened under Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009, five decades after Paris withdrew its Mediterranean Fleet from NATO in 1959. Sarkozy was nicknamed “Sarko l’Américain” because of his passion for the United States and his close alliance with the George W. Bush Administration. Both Sarkozy and Hollande followed a rather liberal interventionist approach, as was evident during the Arab uprisings.

With his ascension to power in May 2017, Macron was critical of the interventionist democracy promotion of his two predecessors.

With his ascension to power in May 2017, Macron was critical of the interventionist democracy promotion of his two predecessors and said in June 2017 that “with me, it will be the end of a form of neo-conservatism imported into France for ten years.” However, Macron has been sending French troops to war zones under the banner of fighting terrorism. Since at least 2015, France has been deploying special forces and engaging in clandestine operations in Libya, to help Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, and in Syria, to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces; this is in addition to French troops in West Africa, which Macron drew down in June.

Moreover, Macron continued the same efforts of aligning the interests of Paris with Washington by the initial attempts to cozy up to President Donald Trump; however, that did not allow him to have a significant impact on Middle East policy beyond Lebanon. When former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained in Saudi Arabia in November 2017, Macron intervened in concert with the United States and secured his release, but his efforts failed to keep the Trump Administration committed to the Iran nuclear deal. The Macron-Trump relationship became more tense as the French president warned in 2019 about “the brain death of NATO.” In July 2020, France suspended its role in NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean; this followed the results of a NATO investigation that did not back up Paris’s claim that one of its warships was harassed by the Turkish navy, after France tried to inspect a Turkish vessel suspected of violating the UN arms embargo on Libya.

Macron kept lines of communication open with Russia and Iran, seeking to establish France as an “honest broker” that could engage both allies and foes on the Middle East. In that sense, Macron initially restored the public perception of France’s global influence, but he has not always kept the core principles of the “Gaullo-Mitterrandian” approach. He became laser-focused on Turkish expansionism but failed to deter Ankara in Libya. Trump was arguably emboldening Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the eastern Mediterranean by looking the other way, as Ankara’s military intervened in northeastern Syria, and provided drones that targeted Haftar’s supply lines, allowing the forces led by the Government of National Accord to alter the dynamics of the battleground. Moreover, following the tensions over Islam and freedom of speech after the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Macron gave a speech in October 2020 announcing new laws to “prevent Islamist separatism.” This speech had a negative impact on French influence in the region and Macron walked back some of his public statements.

“Macronism” as a Governing Style

Since day one at the Élysée Palace, it was clear that Macron wanted to inherit one important aspect of the “Gaullo-Mitterrandian” approach: the monarchical practice of power, most notably, in conducting French national security policy.

In July 2017, he sparred with the head of the French armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, over military budget cuts the Élysée wanted to pass, which led to the resignation of de Villiers (Macron then told army generals in a speech “I am the boss”). Moreover, the Quai d’Orsay, the headquarters of the French foreign ministry, is increasingly marginalized by the Élysée in shaping French foreign policy. In October, the head of the Middle East and North Africa directorate at the French foreign ministry, Christophe Farnaud, was ousted by the Élysée reportedly regarding policy tensions over Libya and Lebanon.

Since day one at the Élysée Palace, it was clear that Macron wanted to inherit one important aspect of the “Gaullo-Mitterrandian” approach: the monarchical practice of power, most notably, in conducting French national security policy.

Coming to power as a young centrist president, Macron initially relied on the advice of the old guard of French diplomats but soon became skeptical and replaced them with his own advisors. In a speech at the conference of ambassadors in August 2019, Macron hinted about a “deep state” and “collective tendency” in the French administration that continues to subscribe to a French foreign policy that contradicts the stated policy set by the president. He advised attending ambassadors not to “follow this path” because it “undermines the President’s credibility.” Macron’s tendency to concentrate power in the presidency is not unprecedented, but it has led to a backlash given the growing complexity of French politics. Earlier  in 2021, French authorities endorsed the Global Security Bill in the French Senate, which restricted the ability to circulate images of police violence while simultaneously extending the surveillance powers of police—despite public opposition and protests against this new law.

Leading to the French presidential elections next year, Macron has been governing and campaigning from the right. The latest presidential poll shows that he leads by 25 percent in the first round of voting against the far right, with 19-20 percent to Nationalist Marine Le Pen and 14-15 percent to commentator Éric Zemmour. Macron’s handling of the economy and COVID-19 has increased his approval rating to 40 percent, despite the growing public dissatisfaction with his presidency, which places him in a better position than Sarkozy and Hollande at similar times toward the end of their terms. However, given that the French liberal-conservative political party (the Republicans) and the center-left Socialist Party remain in disarray with no strong presidential candidates, Macron is expected to win a second term, if there are no surprises until next year. His challenge, however, will be to restore a majority in the legislative elections for “En Marche!”—his movement which lost 26 of its seats since Macron took office.

Assessing Macron’s Middle East Approach

There is no clear and coherent Macron doctrine. His pragmatic opportunism and style of personal diplomacy typically make a grand entrance but, later, Macron recalibrates, manages expectations, and cuts losses. This was evident during French diplomacy after the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 and in the international conference on Libya held in Paris in May 2018.

There is no clear and coherent Macron doctrine. His pragmatic opportunism and style of personal diplomacy typically make a grand entrance but, later, Macron recalibrates, manages expectations, and cuts losses.

Events in recent years and weeks have shown the limits of Macron’s version of the “Gaullo-Mitterrandian” approach and indicate that he also inherited some tactical aspects of his two predecessors. Sarkozy’s foreign policy in the Middle East oscillated from appeasing an autocratic leader like Muammar Qadhafi, as French court documents have testified, to helping NATO intervene in Libya to bring down the leader’s rule.

Macron continued this unpredictability in French foreign policy, switching from criticizing Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in January 2019 to embracing him during an official visit to Paris in December 2020 and affirming that human rights preconditions will not be tied to the sale of French arms to Egypt. While Macron was officially endorsing the internationally recognized Libyan government, reports emerged that French troops had been deployed since at least 2015 to back Khalifa Haftar, and this undermined France’s own diplomatic efforts to mediate the Libyan conflict. French policy-makers did not react when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During the Gulf crisis in 2017, French foreign policy remained neutral and was unable to trigger the defense pact that it had signed with both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates during the 1990s.

Under Macron, France’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates grew closer as both sides supported Haftar and shared the same animosity against Turkey. The UAE is France’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East, with French exports to the UAE amounting to 3.3 billion euros in 2019. French arms deals with the UAE reached over 8 billion euros ($9.3 billion) last year after French arms exports showed an 8.6 percent decline in 2019 following major sales in previous years, most notably a $14 billion deal with Qatar in 2017.

While bilateral trade between Saudi Arabia and France reached nearly $10 billion before 2020 and France is one of the largest investors in Saudi Arabia ($4.37 billion), the alignment between Saudi and French interests remains limited under Macron. Since intervening to secure the release of Hariri, Macron has had a complex personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In addition, Riyadh does not endorse French diplomacy when it comes to Iran’s nuclear deal and Lebanon, even though the two countries have aligned interests in Iraq.

During the past decade, the UAE-Qatar rivalry has had an impact on France, even though Macron’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been closer to the UAE—given his foreign policy approach that deviated from Sarkozy and Hollande. Sarkozy was more aligned with Qatar during the Arab uprisings; for his part, Hollande was described in June 2016 as the “unwavering ally” of Riyadh and endorsed the March 2015 Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

In other instances, Macron was rather reserved in criticizing allies in the region by reinforcing the argument of sovereignty. When the UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited Damascus last November, in a bold normalization move that runs against stated French policy, Paris described this move as a “sovereign” decision. When Tunisian President Kais Saied turned the table on the Islamist Ennahda movement, France’s position was reserved and was not critical of the move, in a country where French policy is already a controversial matter. When Saudi Arabia recently took punitive measures against Lebanon and undermined the French-backed Lebanese government, French officials had a cautious response.

Macron began his tenure as a young centrist president with no ideological baggage from the Cold War era. He wanted to restore France as what former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine once called the “middle power of global influence.” However, France’s limited resources and its need for investments and arms deals, as well as its diplomatic style, have affected its impact internationally. The French president has no doubt opened new foreign policy potentials for Paris in what could be considered as “Macronism” or a standalone approach of French diplomacy that is not a coherent, clearly articulated doctrine nor a mere replication of the Gaullo-Mitterrandian approach. “Macronism,” however, has the inherent French problem of the inability to have significant impact, and it requires the weight and will of power and diplomacy to apply it effectively.