A series of high-profile diplomatic visits in Iraq and Lebanon and a months-long standoff with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have recently put French president Emmanuel Macron’s strategy in the eastern Mediterranean into focus.
This past summer, Paris dispatched a frigate and two fighter jets in response to Turkey’s incursions on internationally recognised Cypriot and Greek territorial waters for oil and gas exploration missions. He made two visits to the Lebanese capital after the Beirut port explosion to push for urgent reforms.
As Macron lays the groundwork for his new strategy in the Mediterranean, there are three key areas to look out for.
A new positioning for France as a proactive political and commercial partner
France has deep cultural, commercial, and linguistic ties to the region as a result of its colonial past, yet it has been struggling to define its Mediterranean strategy since the 1960s.
Issues of security, migration, and energy that dominated the agendas of Macron’s predecessors remain present. Macron is especially keen to avoid a new wave of refugees as he faces re-election in 2022. He also wants to protect French commercial interests in the region, especially Total’s efforts to tap into the region’s rich energy resources.
However, Macron has recently sought to adopt a more proactive approach and position France as a constructive partner. For his visits to the eastern Mediterranean, he chose two countries where the political situation remains fragile, to promote his vision for national sovereignty; inclusive, pluralist, and perhaps ironically, free from foreign interference.
Lebanon will put this strategy to the test. Despite Macron’s calls for reforms and political change, the designation of Saad Hariri, a year after mass protests pushed him to resign, has been a blow for those who had called for the dismantling of Lebanon’s political establishment.
His critics will also see this “business as usual” approach in Macron’s welcome to the Egyptian president in Paris and his refusal to condition France’s defence and commercial ties to the country to an improvement of its human rights record.
France’s bid for influence in the region is also contested by regional powers such as Russia and Iran, and especially Turkey, with whom relations have been particularly turbulent in the past few months.
France’s leading role in the EU’s response to Ankara’s regional ambitions
Prior to the verbal and military escalation of this summer, relations between Paris and Ankara were already tense. France’s recognition of the Armenian genocide and Nicolas Sarkozy’s fierce opposition to Turkey joining the EU upset Ankara. French and Turkish interests also seem at odds in Libya and the Caucasus.
France has clearly led the EU’s response to Ankara’s actions in the Mediterranean. It was the only country that sent military support to Greece and Cyprus. It was Macron who gathered the “Med 7” EU leaders at an emergency summit in Corsica in September, to send a warning to Turkey, which, he said, “is no longer a partner”.
However, EU opinion seems to have hardened on the issue. While “the offer for a positive EU-Turkey agenda remains on the table”, EU leaders will discuss possible new sanctions against Erdogan’s government at a key summit this week.
Macron’s personal mission to reshape the EU’s cooperation with the Mediterranean
Macron also wants to succeed where his predecessors have failed: mobilising the European Union (EU) around a fresh approach to the Mediterranean, under Paris’ leadership.
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her way out and the UK’s departure from the EU, France has become the de facto driving force of Europe’s foreign policy.
Macron has stressed the need for more cooperation between the EU and its southern neighbours. Turkey might be what will bring EU leaders back to the table with France to adopt another approach to the Mediterranean—a crucial issue in the context of the retreat of NATO and the U.S. in the region.
Recognising the failure of previous French-led top-down projects, like the disappointing 1995 Barcelona Process, or Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean, Macron believes that the momentum should come from civil society. He has also made it his personal mission to build new mechanisms of political cooperation in the Mediterranean “in the next few months”. How he will do so remains unclear.
It will take more than a few diplomatic visits to demonstrate a clear strategy and long-term vision for France in the region. One thing, however, is clear: the competition for influence between Paris and Ankara will shape the future of the eastern Mediterranean.