French naval presence in eastern Mediterranean not just about energy

Last month, after a summit with leaders of other European Union states that border the Mediterranean, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Turkey to stop what he called illegal drilling for gas in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. Macron vowed that the EU would not back down on the issue.

Two days later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed his French counterpart for these remarks. 

“I told Macron, you have no right to speak about Cyprus issue. You have nothing to do with Cyprus. On this matter, I speak, Greece speaks, Britain speaks, the EU speaks, but not you,” Erdoğan told reporters after the G-20 summit in Osaka.

France, the state with Europe’s largest and NATO’s second most powerful armed forces, has a constant naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and has of late shown increasing interest in Cyprus.

In Nicosia in January, Macron stated the importance of Cyprus as a port for the naval task force formed around the Charles de Gaulle (CDG) aircraft carrier. The CDG task force visited the Cypriot port of Limassol two months later. 

Cypriot commanders paid a courtesy visit to the CDG as it held a position in the waters south of Cyprus. A day later, the chief of staff of the French Navy, Admiral Christophe Prazuck, paid an official visit to the naval base at Mari, near the Cypriot port of Larnaca.

In May, closer contact between the two countries bore fruit when Cypriot and French defence ministers signed a statement of intent to expand that naval base to allow it to accommodate larger warships. The agreement also aims to strengthen Cyprus’ military capabilities and develop strategic cooperation between the two countries’ navies. 

The Turkish press saw this agreement as part of the energy struggle in the eastern Mediterranean. According to Turkish media, there is an article in the agreement that states the “French Navy will protect the French petroleum company Total, which is active in Greek blocks, from any Turkish intervention”.

Total is the license co-holder, with its partner Italian ENI, for blocks declared in Cyprus’s EEZ and near the shores of Lebanon and Crete. The Turkish Navy twice blocked an exploration vessel leased by ENI off Cyprus in February 2018.

Despite the disputes over energy rights grabbing headlines in recent months, this should not be taken as the only factor driving France’s growing involvement in a region that is both volatile and highly significant for French foreign policy, experts say.

Mona Sukkarieh, political risk consultant and co-founder of the Middle East Strategic Perspectives think-tank, believes the French presence in the eastern Mediterranean should not be considered only from an energy perspective.

“The region has attracted renewed attention over the past few years, with conflicts in Syria, Libya, continued concern over stability in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, growing security risks, illegal immigration, in addition to promising energy potential,” she said.

“All these factors have led to a race for influence in the region, driven mostly by geopolitical interests rather than commercial ambitions. This explains why the French maintain a quasi-permanent naval presence and activity in the eastern Mediterranean,” she said.

Vincent Tourret, a security expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, pointed out that France has always had a special interest in the eastern Mediterranean due to its colonial legacy and security concerns.  

“France has always held a special attention to what we call the Levant due to the large French communities there, the cultural and economic penetration in these regions and the perceived threat from these regions in terms of terrorism,” he said.

These interests have led France to deploy forces either to deter aggression or to be used for humanitarian missions like evacuations of non-combatants from war zones, he said.

The eight-year Syrian war is one reason for the French military presence, as French warships have been patrolling Syria’s coasts since the start of the conflict in 2011. 

In April 2018, France launched an operation with the United States and Britain to bomb Syrian chemical facilities after the Syrian government conducted a chemical attack. The missile strikes were launched from vessels in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Another security topic from the last years is the potential spill-over of the Syrian civil war. First, it forced France to intervene to uphold international law. France conducted the operation to retaliate against chemical gas use from the Syrian regime,” Tourret said.

“Second, because of its consequences, a strengthened Hezbollah, the proliferation of Shia militias in general and the continued presence of ISIS and returning French national jihadists, pose real and long-term risk in the region and directly on our national soil,” he said.

According to Tourret, in this arrangement, Cyprus is a very interesting forward base for France to conduct military operations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Moreover, France has had a defence cooperation treaty with Cyprus since 2007, and updated it in 2017 for another decade.

“France sees Cyprus as a reliable and strategic staging post in a region with increased geopolitical stakes in which it wants to maintain influence and where other, more traditional stopping off points may be threatened in the future,” Sukkarieh said.

“Cyprus sees France as a reliable EU ally, particularly after Brexit and uncertainties over where Britain stands amid rising tensions with Turkey,” she said.

The French military presence is not solely about the scramble for energy resources, yet for Paris and Nicosia it is a win-win cooperation: the French navy provides a European shield for Cyprus against Turkish aggression, which in turn enables France to maintain its place in the eastern Mediterranean security system.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.