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Hichem Karoui: Hollande One Year Later
June 02, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

François Hollande’s victory in the French presidential elections one year ago has been cheered by Arabs as a positive prospect to improve relations, although some Arab analysts warned that his presidency would not make tangible changes in the French policy.

Actually, it did, at least regarding one issue: the relations with Algeria and, relatively, the other ex-colonies.

François Hollande would pass in history as the first French president who squarely denounced the brutality and injustice of the whole era of French colonialism. He did it before the Algerian Parliament on December 20, 2012, thus making history and headlines on both shores of the Mediterranean. While some people would reasonably find in Hollande’s words vindication for the evil of European imperialism, others – though a minority — would shamelessly talk of an “indiscriminate betrayal of French and Western civilising values.”

On the domestic level, the situation is not bright.

Hollande’s approval rating rose by 4 percentage points to 29 per cent in May, as perceptions improved among his own Socialist Party voters, pensioners, blue-collar workers and women. To his record should be added some controversial issues: loosening labour laws and allowing same-sex marriage, as well as ordering a military operation in Mali to help oust hardline fighters.

Noticeably, he has been plagued by unemployment that has risen above 10 per cent, stalled growth and pressure to reduce France’s public deficit, while his same-sex marriage law has infuriated a swathe of French society and prompted huge street protests.

In France, foreign policy is described as the “domaine reservé” (reserved area), which means it is much more likely to be decided by the President of the republic, than any of his ministers.

The famous French “Politique arabe,” once championed by President Charles de Gaulle, and continued by his successors, claimed a special friendship with the Arab world, an active French role in the region, and a willingness to differentiate France from the two superpowers, particularly the United States. De Gaulle’s choices were connected to the role he wished for France on the European scene and the rest of the world. From this perspective, his resumption of the dialogue with Algeria and an outreach in favour of non-alignment made sense. Yet, the Arab world then came well after the French-speaking black Africa in the French priorities. With the Maghreb, cultural cooperation was certainly a key element in this policy. The influence thus exerted on the civil societies (through education, TV, etc...) has been always felt well beyond the choices of the states. The emigration has also created a transnational field where influences and transfers of cultural models have likely weighed in and played in favour of empowering the civil societies.

Three major events in the early 1990s led the French government to reconsider its policies towards the Maghreb. The first was the 1991 Gulf War. President François Mitterrand’s eventual decision to participate militarily in the coalition against Iraq undermined France’s “politique arabe.” The French decision to join the American-led coalition against Iraq led many Arab countries to criticise France’s support for US policies and proclaim that its “politique arabe” had been abandoned. Government officials and policy analysts in France reached similar conclusions. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, then minister of defence, resigned and strongly denounced France’s participation in the war. Then French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas stated in an interview in March 1991 with Le Monde, “It would be more correct to talk about the end of a double myth. Evoking the Arab world is a myth in itself, a ‘politique arabe’ is another.”

When Jacques Chirac, who is one of the most conspicuous Gaullists, came to power (May 1995), he presented himself as a staunch and vocal supporter of democratisation, human rights and political freedoms. In January 1999, Chirac outlined his foreign-policy agenda, which included “the principle of freedom, to ensure everywhere democracy and respect for the universal declaration of human rights.” On October 5, Chirac made an official state visit to Tunisia. He then characterised the country as “a pole of stability and peace.” He carefully omitted any mention of human rights but simply remarked that the best response to fundamentalism and extremism was through “economic reform, social justice and political openness.”

On December 1-2, 2001, Chirac conducted another visit to Tunis, Algiers and Rabat, ostensibly to exchange views on the international situation created by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. However, the trip was also designed to show French support for the three leaders and to reinforce political ties to three Muslim countries whose cooperation is important in any struggle against radical hardline terrorism. Although Chirac only stayed three hours in Tunis, his praise for Ben Ali was unstinting. At a joint press conference, he characterised Franco-Tunisian relations as excellent and extolled the “astonishing economic and social success registered by Tunisia under the guidance of President Ben Ali.” Chirac went on to state that Ben Ali should be given a great deal of credit for Tunisia’s success in combating terrorists at home.

With Nicolas Sarkozy (May 2007), the French “politique arabe” grew more ambitious. In his first year in office, Sarkozy tried to advance his foreign policy agenda. He has launched initiatives on many fronts: with the European Union, to win approval of the Lisbon Treaty; with Libya, to free the Bulgarian nurses held captive there, secure contracts with the government, and enlist Qadhafi in his plan for a Mediterranean Union; with Russia, to discuss the supply of gas to Western Europe; with Africa, to initiate a new relationship with France’s former colonies; with China, to negotiate economic issues and the sale of nuclear reactors; with Lebanon, to register French support of the new government; with the United Kingdom, to woo the British with the notion that France under Sarkozy had become more “Anglo-Saxon” in its outlook; with Germany, to smooth differences with Angela Merkel over the European Central Bank and the Mediterranean Union; with Nato, to begin consideration of full French integration into the military command structure; and with the United States, to signal a more flexible French position vis-à-vis American military engagements abroad.

The project of the Mediterranean Union he launched was much more encompassing than the “politique arabe,” although it was not clear how its success could be granted with the Arab-Israeli conflict still putting the region afire.

Anyway, it did not get along with much approval; and today, France has still a lot to do with the new conflicts, the new insurrections, and the new democratic regimes around the Mediterranean basin.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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