France’s president is on maneuvers in the Middle East. Over the weekend, Emmanuel Macron concluded a three-country tour of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He was there, of course, to talk foreign policy. But his real audience was thousands of kilometers away in France.
The next French election is almost exactly four months away and the chessboard of rivals is almost complete. On Saturday, even as Macron was arriving in Jeddah, the main center-right party chose its candidate, Valerie Pecresse, who runs the Ile-de-France region around Paris. In her victory speech, she set out her stall on law and order, immigration and the economy – all familiar topics that Macron rivals can be expected to focus on.
Instead, France’s president hopes to keep his office by shifting the conversation beyond the French borders. Macron knows his best chance of being re-elected is keeping French minds as far away from home as possible.
In some way, each stop on his tour of the Arab Gulf countries was about sending the message that he is a global statesman.
In Qatar, he revealed plans for a joint European diplomatic mission to Afghanistan. The West has been grappling with how to maintain relations with Kabul without offering political recognition to the Taliban. Macron’s plan would create an organization shared by a number of European countries, with ambassadors present, but without diplomatic recognition.
In Saudi Arabia, he moved to end a diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and the kingdom, arranging a phone call between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Ever since the Beirut port blast in the summer of 2020, Macron has sought to portray himself as a champion – perhaps protector – of Lebanese interests.
But it was his trip to the UAE that had perhaps the most personally relevant outcome. The country signed a deal to purchase US$19 billion worth of advanced French hardware, including 80 Rafale fighter jets, the largest-ever foreign order for France’s flagship aircraft.
That deal in particular will play well at home, where Macron is still reeling from the collapse of a deal to sell French submarines to Australia.
Because as much as Macron is hoping to focus French minds on his foreign-policy credentials, for the past few months those have been in distinctly short supply.
In September, Australia suddenly withdrew from a multibillion-dollar submarine deal and instead joined a strategic pact with the United States and Britain. It was a double humiliation: Not only was the reputation of France’s military hardware tarnished in public, but a strategy that would have seen France project power into the Indo-Pacific region collapsed.
On top of that, three of France’s closest allies either lied or kept a major pact secret.
The AUKUS pact was a major betrayal. But barely had that row subsided than France and Britain were engaged in a political tussle over migrants crossing the English Channel.
For Macron’s rivals, these are wide-open goals: a president who cannot get a grip on migration and whom even France’s closest allies don’t trust.
Yet luck – that most elusive yet most essential political resource – may still be on Macron’s side.
With Germany’s Angela Merkel having finally departed the political stage, there is no other figure who could credibly be seen as the continent’s political leader. Merkel’s successor as chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has not had much time to stamp his authority in Germany, or introduce himself to the wider continent. For the ambitious Macron, there is no better moment – something he capitalized on two weeks ago by signing a major bilateral treaty with Italy.
Another piece of luck has also crossed the French president’s path. From next month, Paris will head the rotating presidency of the European Union, giving Macron a few months to strut about the EU stage.
Certainly that brings with it pitfalls: After the departure of the UK, there is still anti-EU feeling inside France that could be exploited. But that possibility pales in comparison to the upside: the portrayal of Emmanuel Macron, the statesman, against the rabble-rousers of the far right ranged against him; one, Marine Le Pen, a second-generation extremist, the other, Eric Zemmour, twice convicted of hate speech. That is a comparison and a contest Macron would welcome.
The great advantage of the presidency is that it allows its holder to act and make decisions. By contrast, rivals merely talk.
If Macron can position himself as the new leader of Europe, someone able to get things done abroad, someone as comfortable resolving tricky issues in Afghanistan as enhancing cooperation with Rome, that may, despite domestic criticism, provide enough of a contrast to his rivals to retain power.
The French president’s strutting through the palaces of the Gulf may just be noticed enough at home to save his own throne.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.