Macron Sets His Foreign Compass on North Africa and War on Terror
The new French president Emmanuel Macron is clearly feeling his way towards new ground on the longstanding issues surrounding the Syrian conflict and the urgent war on terror.
In his first remarks on June 22, Macron said “Bashar is not our enemy; he is the enemy of the Syrian people… I haven’t stated that Bashar Assad’s departure is a necessary condition for everything because no one has shown me a legitimate successor.”
He also maintained, “Foreign powers collectively committed an error in focusing on a military solution in Syria,” then adding that, instead of pushing for Assad’s departure, Macron would prefer to work more closely with Russia for a solution in Syria.”
Five days later, on Tuesday, June 27, after a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump, the French leader sounded quite different. He agreed to France working with the United States against Syria if there was another chemical attack. A French official amplified this by saying that the Franco-US accord on this also carried a message to Moscow: Paris was now available to work with Washington on military action against the Assad regime.
This turnabout should not surprise anyone keeping track of Macron in the bare month since he entered the Elysée Palace or his successful election campaign. On the stump, he frequently qualified his pledges with the phrase “en mȇme temps” (at the same time), thereby giving himself leeway for U-turns.
Revealing too was his appointment of Bernard Emié as head the Direction Générale de La Sécurité Extérieure, France’s foreign spy service.
Ernié was French ambassador to Beirut in the years 2004-2007 and present there when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, a crime for which Syria and the Hizballah were generally blamed, and which led to a UN Security Council resolution compelling Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and the Hizballah terrorist group to disarm.
Ernie then served in Turkey and Algeria. The latter served as his listening post for the goings-on in former French territories in North Africa, especially the Sahel wasteland. In recent years, French forces have been deployed to help local government in those former colonies fight the Islamist groups threatening their stability and sending out branches of terror into Europe.
President Macron appears to be aiming for a balancing act in his policies, while at the same time about to come down hard on the war on jihadist terror. He regards this as his first priority and vital for national security, which deteriorated significantly under his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.
This predilection also ties in with his special interest in North Africa.
Macron traveled to Mali on his first visit outside Europe, just a week after his election. There, he inspected France’s only anti-terrorist base. This gesture highlighted his administration’s determination to use military force to strike out against any terrorist organization posing a threat to France. He next visited Rabat to meet the King of Morocco.
In the Gulf dispute between Qatar and four Arab governments, the French President offered to try his hand as a mediator. Here too he needs to strike a balance between two contrasting policies he inherited in a key world oil region: Sarkozy preferred Qatar, while Hollande tilted toward Saudi Arabia.
On another Middle East conflict, the young president took a step back from Hollande’s decision to unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood, which Israel resented, in order to win credibility for France’s pretentions as an honest broker.