France, Europe, and the Arab maelstrom

An Arab world in transformation has found France’s elite shamed by its links with the old order. A control-freak president with base political instincts offers little hope for a better policy, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
9 March 2011

The democratic maelstrom engulfing the Arab countries in the first months of 2011 has revealed to the world and the European Union alike the bankruptcy of Europe’s strategy towards the region. The continent’s political leadership shares with the United States an overriding obsession with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, embodied variously by Osama bin Laden and by the prospect of mass immigration from the southern Mediterranean.

The failure here is not merely intellectual and moral, but practical: for Europe’s inability to foresee or champion the Arab peoples’ deep urge for freedom means that they have seen their closest “friends” overthrown and their policies of decades blown apart. Instead of being at the forefront of support for the changes, Europe is searching in confusion for a new direction among them.

It is all the more regrettable as the Arab democratic movement is driven by values and technologies (from human rights to the internet) that the west has sought to project as instruments of freedom. But rather than being identified with these achievements, Europe’s association with the Arab uprisings is more via the business and arms deals it has conducted with the region’s dictatorships - and indeed the unsavoury behaviour of some politicians. The ties that bind France’s close historical and political links with the middle east mean that it tends in this context to receive especial scrutiny.

At the same time, there has already been a great retreat from past engagements: the days when the region was a primary concern for French leaders (Charlemagne in the 8th century, Francis I in the 16th, Napoleon in the 18th) have long gone; even under the fifth republic, the line from Charles de Gaulle’s Algerian policy and Jacques Chirac's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq has reached a point where for Nicolas Sarkozy the Arab world is a mere appendage to his domestic (if not electoral) policy.

The absence here is not one of a long-gone “grandeur” but of any semblance of long-term strategic thinking. When “Sarko” was elected president in 2007, he had spent five years as interior minister building the image of a hardline opponent of crime and immigration (both areas linked, and both identified with people of Muslim origin). This law-and-order focus was then transferred to his foreign policy.

His main goal in relation to north Africa was to stop immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean reaching French territory; his focus with regard to Gulf states was to seek immediate financial rewards for French business. His key partners were Morocco’s king, Egypt’s now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak (who after resigning was lauded for his “courage” by prime minister François Fillon), and Tunisia’s ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (whose success in upholding “freedoms” in his country was praised by Sarkozy during an official visit in 2008). The Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi - still clawing on to power - was also welcomed and feasted in Paris in 2007.

This closeness to autocratic and corrupt regimes reached the level of caricature in the days after the Tunisian revolt broke out in mid-December 2010, when the leading members of the French political class chose to shelter there during the new-year holidays. Sarkozy himself went to Morocco; then foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie (along with her partner, parliamentary-affairs minister and close friend of Libya, Patrick Ollier) was hosted by a Tunisian businessman (close to both Ben Ali and Gaddafi); the prime minister was invited to Egypt by Mubarak; and a presidential special advisor relaxed in Tripoli.

Michele Alliot-Marie (“MAM”) had distinguished herself during the Tunisian uprising by offering Ben Ali some of France’s “world-famous” police know-how to help him crush his opponents. She earned herself a sacking in late February 2011, intended to appease a public that couldn't understand this unhealthy proximity with unsavoury leaders. The buck has so far stopped there, but the harm to French foreign policy had been done.

The political president

The limits of this policy is one of personnel as well as strategy. France’s president has chosen foreign ministers “more for their limits than on merit” (as Dominique Moïsi of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales) has said, and paid the price.

Both MAM and her predecessor Bernard Kouchner were figureheads for an approach drafted by a president and his advisers who thought they understood the world far than diplomats, and thus could afford to ignore their warnings. An ambassador to Tunisia who described the country as “a police station with a sea view” was replaced by a more pliable one; another, Boris Boillon, appointed in the wake of the protests that ousted Ben Ali proceeded to insult local journalists the day after his arrival, and was picketed by angry demonstrators for his pains).

Sarkozy was forced to admit on TV that he had not understood the Tunisian revolution, and to read an unprecedented open letter published in Le Monde in which signed French diplomats criticised the country’s foreign policy. Alliot-Marie’s replacement is Alain Juppé, a former prime minister under Jacques Chirac (himself currently on trial for corruption).

Juppé is an ambitious political animal who knows the outside world well and has also criticised the “unprecedented weakening” of French diplomacy. But it is unclear whether he will get more freedom of action from a control-freak president whose very political weakness (an opinion-poll gives him an all-time-low support of 20%) makes him desperate to use every tool to win the presidential election in 2012.

The rise of the extreme-right Front National (FN) in the polls under its new leader Marine Le Pen only reinforces Sarkozy’s instinct to reach for the favourite tools in his repertoire, from illegal immigration to secularism (both of which easily blend in to an anti-Islamic discourse). Yet what credibility can a policy have that plays on the fears of immigration from Arab and African countries, and castigates French Muslim citizens?

France's Arab policy is thus now torn between a discredited and racialised (though perhaps electorally rewarding) old and the effort to adjust to a new situation where Arab citizens are seen as motivated more by the desire for economic development and human rights than by religious concerns. The short-term politics dictate an effort to regain support from older voters who have fled the president’s UMP party for the FN; long-term national and international interests demand a larger view.

The trap of the past

The dilemmas of France’s state are not helped by its intellectuals (real or so-called). The French have often looked here for a sense of moral conscience and bulwark against political cynicism, and found an expression of their loftiest ideals in such writers as Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre or Raymond Aron. Today, many of those who celebrated their fellow Europeans’ democratic triumphs after 1989 seem less than enthusiastic about Arabs and Muslims trying to follow the same path. Why?

The emblematic Bernard-Henri Lévy suggests an answer when he refers in Le Monde to the need to “take into consideration how complex the situation is”, and announces that “our prime duty is to help democrats fulfil their democratic aims by encouraging them to take clear pledges” - of which “respecting the 1979 Israel-Palestinian peace treaty” is one.

The patronising implication is that Arabs have the right to revolution only if they don't jeopardise Israel’s interests; in other words, that some peoples have more rights than others. But others take a more principled view. The academic Daniel Lindenberg comments that in their hearts, “many intellectuals think the Arabs are backward by birth, able only to understand big-stick policies”.

Olivier Mongin, editor of the journal Esprit, elaborates the point: “in repeating 'better Ben Ali than bin Laden' or 'better Mubarak than the Muslim Brotherhood', many have become entangled in a contradiction: defending human rights in eastern Europe while supporting Arab dictators under the pretense that the latter were the only bulwark against Islamism”.

Henry Laurens, professor of middle-east history at the prestigious Collège de France, skewered much of the French intelligentsia by commenting: “if the media-friendly intellectuals don't have much to say, it is because most of them still base their thinking on cold-war concepts”. The targets of this criticism, and their political masters, prefer to live in the past than to face the realities of a fast-changing world. France, and Europe, need the latter.

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