France making bid to return to Middle East – analyst

France is becoming increasingly involved in the Middle East, as the United States appears to vacate the region and China and Russia vie for influence, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven A. Cook wrote for Foreign Policy magazine on Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron since August has visited Lebanon twice, meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani in Baghdad, while increasing France’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

While Macron’s visits to Lebanon were said to be related to the relief effort following the Beirut explosion on Aug. 4, “that does not explain the French troops and aircraft that arrived on the Greek island of Crete or the two fighter jets that appeared in Cyprus,” Cook said.

France has maintained its relations in the Middle East through weapons sales and participation in counterterrorism operations after the end of its colonial era, but has not been too serious about its role in the region, Cook said.

Macron’s changing attitude showing France as willing to get involved for stability is due to “in a few words: refugees, energy, and Turkey,” the analyst wrote.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had gotten involved in the military intervention against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in the early 2010s, “not (as) an advocate of regime change for the sake of bringing democracy,” but because he feared “waves of refugees (coming) to European shores,” he said.

Macron, in turn, chose to back Libyan General Khalifa Haftar in the ongoing post-Gaddafi conflict in the north African nation, based on “cold calculation that Haftar could be the strongman that France needs to keep Libya together,” and curb a flow of refugees into Europe.

The prospect of Lebanese refugees coming to Europe is part of why Macron is getting more involved in Lebanon, Cook said, as the previous refugee wave from Syria buffed right-wing nationalism and neo-Nazi parties throughout the continent.

French oil giant Total has been operating in Libya for decades, has a significant stake in Iraqi oil fields, and is involved in natural gas exploration efforts off the coast of Cyprus. The French “pursue and protect their commercial interests in the region doggedly,” Cook said.

Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hold each other in low regard, as evidenced in their numerous spats, for instance when Erdoğan called Macron “brain dead” last year. France has been among the sceptical members of the European Union with regards to Turkey’s accession to the bloc as a majority-Muslim, authoritarian-leaning country with aggressive policies that often clash against European interests.

As such, Macron’s visit to Iraq where he showed support for the KRG and stressed Iraqi sovereignty amid Turkish military operations on the country’s soil “was a message to Turkey that not all countries—the United States included—will look the other way,” Cook said. “No doubt Macron was also engaged in a bit of trolling intended to annoy almost everyone in Turkey.”