"What should France hope for and from the Arab spring; what should it fear; and what should it do to help realise favourable conclusions for the Arabs and itself?" These questions were posed by France's new foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an address at Paris's Sciences Po institute on 27 June 2012. The event was a conference on "The Arab world in the age of revolutions" (24-27 June 2012), whose audience included more than sixty international scholars and researchers (several among them from the middle east).
Fabius’s contribution, a carefully written lecture entitled "France and the new Arab world", vacillated between hope and fear while treating the question of "what to do" in a somewhat modest and unadventurous way. His timidity about formulating a new vision invites further discussion for it reflects a deeper French (and western) ambivalence about the Arab spring and the region as a whole, with its emerging forces and developments. If such a vision is to emerge, its pillars could be twofold: building alliances with people, not regimes; and supporting Palestinian self-determination and liberation.
Let's begin, however, by noting an implication of the word "new" in the title of Fabius’s talk. Why, after all, is the same word not placed before "French foreign policy", as an indication of the need to keep pace with the "newness" of developments in the Arab world? Wouldn't this be the right moment for the recently installed French government to respond to the region's unfolding chapter by drafting "a new French foreign policy towards a new Arab world"?
The signals of such a change are already there. After initial hesitation when the Tunisian revolution erupted, France’s policy towards the Arab uprisings took the right side by supporting citizens' demands and aspirations. This stance remained fairly consistent, with France taking the lead in Libya and holding firm vis-à-vis the Syrian revolution. As a result France has been able to amass significant political capital and leverage in the Arab world in the year and a half since the Arab uprisings started. This "investment" could be increased further or squandered, depending on how creative and forward-looking the country's foreign policy can truly become (see Patrice de Beer, "France, Europe, and the Arab maelstrom", 10 March 2011)
The two pillars
The first of the two potential pillars of such a policy is the decision to build alliances with people and their elected governments, not dictators. In the intensifying debates across the Arab world about western support and involvement in the Arab spring, there is a shared view that the west is fundamentally interest-driven rather than ethical. The "new" dimension of this interest-driven politics is that it is anchored in a sense that the "common good" is something it now shares with Arab peoples rather than their authoritarian rulers - a departure from the post-decolonisation era, when western powers became used to doing business with dictators only.
The costs of that practice were manifold. The west's supposed interests in the region were advanced against the will of the people not in agreement with them - one-way-traffic with a vengeance. The west's politics were seen by many as a continuation of colonialism in an indirect way, using puppet rulers. The west's refusal to match its actions to its words and principles created a poisonous dialectic that was conducive to all sorts of extremism. Now, for the first time in decades, the alliance between the west and Arab dictators has been shaken to the roots. If a different norm of relations is to emerge - based on common interests with the people at its centre, within a context of democracy and pluralism in the new Arab world - then both sides will greatly benefit.
The second potential pillar of a creative and forward-looking French foreign policy relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The universally agreed key to resolving this conflict is enshrined in many United Nations resolutions: for the Palestinians to exercise self-determination. Any solution that attempts to surmount this core principle will categorically fail, as has been demonstrated over the past two decades of the "peace process". The parameters of the final settlement are known to almost everyone: an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution for the refugee problem. The Arab peace initiative of 2002 brought all the Arab countries on board and offered Israel unprecedented collective recognition and normalisation of relations in return for complying with what has been agreed by the entire international community.
The Palestine question, unless it is justly resolved, will destroy any chance of improvement in Arab-western (including French) relations. France’s support for the Libyans' and Syrians' struggles to achieve freedom is considerable; but if such support is not matched by backing for the Palestinians to achieve their liberation, its policy would seem hypocritical. Already, French and western insistence on the implementation of UN resolutions on Libya (and, earlier, Iraq and Afghanistan) reflects crude "double-standard politics" when no similar stance is adopted towards UN resolutions on Palestine.
Here, France should come under particular scrutiny, for its recent history also contains experience of occupation, resistance and liberation is still fresh. It knows from the infamous Vichy regime that occupation is the ugliest form of dictatorship. So France and the west's declarations in favour of freedom and democracy in the Arab region will bear fruit only if they are extended to a genuine support for the Palestinians in achieving their freedom from Israeli occupation.
The window for change
The current moment is a unique opportunity for France to embark on a fresh and vigorous middle-eastern policy, by vigorous backing of democracy in the Arab world and the emergence of a viable and independent Palestinian state. If it does so, the hopes of the Arab spring would be multiplied, and many terrors allayed.
But the opportunity has a time-limit. The window for salvaging the two-state solution is rapidly closing because of the aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. At the same time, extreme right-wing parties are gaining ground in Israel as well as in many Arab countries. A bold French approach in the region that builds on the political capital accumulated during the Arab spring would help win this race against time.
The change needed could be described as another "Charles de Gaulle moment" in the region, recalling the time when France's great general took the momentous decision to withdraw from Algeria and thus facilitate the country's freedom and independence from colonial rule. The fiftieth anniversary of Algeria's independence, a historic Franco-Arab event, is celebrated in July 2012. It coincides with the 300th anniversary of the birth of another son of France, the humanist philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If his commitment to a new social contract based on citizenship and equality could be combined with de Gaulle's strategic vision, French foreign policy in the middle east could lead the region and the world to a better era.