22 Dec 2020

Beyond Islamophobia: France’s policies toward the Arab world

Dr. Pascal Boniface

In the fall of 2020, a campaign to boycott French products was launched in protest against the “Islamophobia” that would prevail in France. President Emmanuel Macron spoke out against such interpretation. How did things end up like this?

We have often heard of a French policy tailored for the Arab world and which would differentiate it from other Western countries. In the beginning, the idea may seem attractive; but France is not the only country to have relationships with Arab countries and, therefore, a policy tailored for them. All Western countries have their own regional policy; the intensity of these can vary depending on each country’s diplomatic weight.

The United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and others also have a policy tailored for Arab countries. So why should France be an exception? For a very long time, France seemed to be the Western country that best understood the sensibilities of Arab countries and had a policy of cooperation with them based on a true partnership.

This dates back to the beginning of the Fifth Republic, established by General de Gaulle in 1958. Previously under the Fourth Republic, France, on the contrary, had embraced a policy that was considered hostile to the Arab world. From 1954, France became embroiled in the Algerian War of Independence. In 1956, it launched, with the United Kingdom, a military operation against Egypt, which was then under Nasser, who had just nationalized the Suez Canal.

General de Gaulle put an end to the Algerian war with the 1962 Évian Accords, which proclaimed Algeria’s independence. De Gaulle had realized that this conflict was undermining France’s reputation abroad, making it lose precious resources in pursuit of what was not a winnable cause anyway. Once the Algerian issue was settled, he could more easily embark on a policy whose major objective was the quest for independence from the United States, which involved the multiplication of alliances with countries that were members neither of the Warsaw Pact nor of NATO, and most of which were located in the south of the hemisphere.

The other key element of Gallic policy was the break-up with Israel in 1967. Under the Fourth Republic, the alliance between France and Israel was very powerful, politically and militarily. The Suez intervention had taken place in liaison with Israel. Before 1967, De Gaulle had advised Israel that France would come to its support if it was attacked, but that it would not support the Jewish state if it started the conflict. After the Six-Day War, France imposed an arms embargo on the warring countries, which only targeted Israel since France was not supplying arms to Egypt or Syria.

In a press conference in November 1967, De Gaulle lamented the fact that Israel had not listened to France and announced prophetically that: “Israel was organizing an occupation in the occupied territories that could not go ahead without oppression, repression, expulsion”, and that there was a resistance that he in turn qualified as terrorism. While all Western countries supported Israel, France was the only one to take up the cause of the Arab countries. France thus became the most popular Western country in the Arab world. Previously champion of the denial of the peoples’ right to self-determination by opposing Algeria’s independence, it therefore became the champion of the same cause by criticizing the Israeli occupation.

After the war of 1973, Franco-Arab relationships evolved both in the economic and strategic fields. The Arab countries were enjoying new resources due to the increase in oil prices and significant investment capacities. France had the great advantage of being a singular country, allied with the United States but not aligned with it, and enjoying good relationships with the Soviet Union without being a communist country. For the Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, turning to France for civil and military contracts allowed them to diversify their partnerships related to the global alliance they had with the United States.

The United Kingdom was too much intertwined with Washington to appear as a credible alternative. Germany was still restricted, for historical reasons, in asserting its power and especially so in the region where Israel was located. The other European countries were not powerful enough to pursue an independent policy. For these reasons, France became the natural champion of the Arab cause because it was the only Western country capable of devising a policy different from that of the Atlantic alliance’s US leader. In 1980, France led the signing of the Venice Declaration by all the member countries of the European Economic Community at that time, asking for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

In 1981, the election of François Mitterrand as President of the Republic raised questions about the direction of France’s policy toward the Arab world. Mitterrand had been a minister under the Fourth Republic during the Algerian War and was considered very close to Israel. Was he going to put an end to De Gaulle’s policy, which he had condemned in the 1960s when he was in opposition? Quite the contrary. Mitterrand continued and even developed De Gaulle’s diplomatic principles so much that one could speak of “Gaullo-Mitterrandism”.

Mitterrand, who had opposed the development of a French nuclear arsenal, declared “I am the very dissuasion” while he had criticized France’s withdrawal from NATO in 1966. However, he also stood up to the Americans. And if he was the first president of the Republic to visit Israel in 1982, he was the first Western leader to declare himself in favor of Palestinian self-determination and their right to a state. He condemned the Israeli military operation in Lebanon in 1982, and France was an important partner of Iraq in its war against Iran. While Ayatollah Khomeini had found refuge in France at Neauphle le Château, France’s political and military support for Iraq made that country the target of Iran-sponsored terrorism.

This did not prevent Mitterrand from strongly condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and from being an active partner in the great international coalition, within the purview of the UN, which was to defeat Saddam Hussein’s troops after the latter had refused all offers of mediation and any peaceful solution to the crisis. The invasion of one country by another was the most serious violation of international law since the UN came into existence in 1945. For the first time, the Security Council acted as provided for in the charter, and it was a legitimate and legal war that would lead to Kuwait’s liberation.

But the United States was going to take advantage of a show of the force it had built to advance its interests, particularly in the Gulf, and try to oust French interests. In the 1980s, France was practically at war with Syria, as Damascus did not appreciate the fact that it took over the defense of Lebanese sovereignty. The French ambassador to Lebanon, Louis Delamare, was even assassinated, probably by the Syrian secret service.

All this demonstrates that France’s policy toward the Arab world did not mean that there could not be deep disagreements with certain states. Those who hindered this proximity between France and Arab countries defined it as being driven by mercantile reasons, access to petrodollars, or designed to flatter a large Arab Muslim population in France that constitutes about 8 percent of the French population. This was not the case. Rather, the policy was driven by a global strategic vision to consolidate partnerships with non-Western countries to increase France’s diplomatic room for maneuver.

After Jacques Chirac was elected President of the Republic in 1995, the permanence of French politics was once again raised. The new president had constantly criticized Mitterrand’s positions when he was in opposition, but once president, he saw the national interest in maintaining France’s traditional positions that helped boost its prestige and popularity. As mayor of Paris, he had become very close to Israel, but during his first visit to that country as president in 1996, Jacques Chirac was physically confronted during a visit to East Jerusalem by an Israeli soldier who wanted to prevent him from going to meet Palestinians. The scene of President Chirac asking the Israeli soldiers in English if they wanted him to return to Paris, and sharply admonishing them, delighted an Arab population unaccustomed to seeing Israeli soldiers being pushed around, let alone by a Western head of state.

The day after September 11, 2001, Le Monde ran the headline on its front page: “We are all Americans.” President Chirac, who in his youth had spent some time in the United States – which was rare for a young Frenchman at the time - was the first foreign head of state to travel to New York to express his solidarity with the United States in the face of terrorism. Chirac had criticized Mitterrand for not adopting diplomatic positions close enough to those of Washington. Yet when George Bush began preparing for war against Iraq, he immediately distanced himself and warned against the catastrophic consequences that such a war could have. Since cooperation between France and Iraq had evolved significantly when he was Prime Minister between 1974 and 1976, he was criticized for wanting above all to protect France’s commercial interests in Iraq. This was a slanderous argument since Iraq’s economy had by that time been effectively ruined by the war against Iran, the Gulf War, and 12 years of almost total embargo.

However, it was a way for the Americans to discredit the French diplomatic position. Chirac was aware that whatever the reproaches made to Saddam Hussein, launching a new war in the region could only give Bin Laden a pretext to denounce American imperialism and Westerners’ visceral hostility toward Arab countries. Waging war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the name of the fight against terrorism was like playing the role of a pyromaniac fireman and maintaining a fire that was meant to be extinguished. Moreover, the argument for launching a military operation to prevent Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons was no longer credible, since his arsenal had been dismantled in 1991 and there was little chance that he would manage to rebuild it after 12 years of a very strict embargo. Moreover, he said that he accepted international inspections.

But how can one resist what Hubert Védrine, one of François Mitterrand’s closest collaborators and who was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997 to 2002, called “hyperpower” - to show that American power now goes beyond the term “superpower”, used during the Cold War? The United States, victims of the September 11 attacks, was caught up in a vengeful fever that made it pay little heed to the voices of reason. The neoconservatives were in charge in Washington. Opposing the American will could prove dangerous insofar as George Bush had warned: “those who are not with us are against us.” Most Arab countries had no sympathy for Saddam Hussein, far from it, but feared the chain of violence from a war that could further destabilize the region and strengthen terrorism.

The United States interpreted French opposition to the Iraq war as a betrayal of an ally that lacked courage. It was the opposite: it took courage to oppose the American steamroller. It also required lucidity. Everyone knew that a military victory would be easy; it was the post-war period that would be complicated. Very quickly, an anti-French campaign was launched in the United States: French fries were symbolically renamed Freedom fries, and even bottles of French wine were emptied on the sidewalks.

But all over the world, France’s attitude was highly appreciated. Chirac would break popularity records for having the courage to make law prevail over force and lucidity over blindness. World public opinion revolted against the prospect of war, and so were most governments. But France was the most vocal in its opposition to the prospect of war, with Dominique de Villepin’s memorable speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. France dared to say no and stand up to the most powerful country in the world, one driven by vengeance and blinded by its own power. I can attest that at the time, wherever I went abroad, the mere fact of being French earned me immediate popularity and recognition.

Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s Secretary of State, declared: “we will punish France, forgive Russia, and forget Germany.” While the French position was extremely popular worldwide and in France itself, it frightened the French business community, which was afraid of being cut off from the American market, the most important in the world.

As Jacques Chirac had predicted, the rapidly won war led to catastrophic strategic consequences. The war amplified the discourse on the clash of civilizations. The gap between the Muslim world and the Western world had widened and all those who advocated hatred of the other in each of its members had found arguments in their favor. Bin Laden’s rhetoric gained new supporters and terrorism grew exponentially. France was then at the zenith of its international popularity. When two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, were kidnapped in Iraq, a general mobilization took place for their safe release.

What happened afterward? For some observers, the turning point occurred in 2007 with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy had declared Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war excessive. To distance himself from Chirac, even though they both belonged to the same political family, he claimed to be Israel’s best friend. He publicly denounced France’s policy toward the Arab world, saying that he would end it once he was elected president. He was nicknamed “Sarko the American.” But in reality, the turning point came before, while Jacques Chirac was still in power, at the very moment when the global turmoil of the Iraq war proved him right. How can we explain such a real and discreet shift by Jacques Chirac?

In reality, Jacques Chirac was caught up in his own audacity. Once the Iraq War was over, his priority was to reconcile with the United States. He also became afraid of the campaigns conducted in the United States on anti-Semitism in France which, in the eyes of those who launched them, would be the cause of a pro-Arab policy. In 2005, he welcomed Ariel Sharon, congratulating him on his disengagement from Gaza, pretending to believe that it was the first step toward a peace agreement when the Israeli Prime Minister was simply trying to get rid of an enclave that tilted the demographic balance in favor of the Arabs over the whole of Israel-occupied territories. Moreover, the assassination of Chirac’s friend Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005 led him to approach the United States to work together to loosen the Syrian stranglehold on this country, which is very close to France.

Once he took office, Nicolas Sarkozy would multiply public demonstrations of friendship toward the United States and Israel, even going so far as to spend his vacations in the United States in the summer of his election and visit George Bush in his private property. However, Sarkozy was at the same time set on pursuing not only economic but also political and strategic relations with the Arab countries and especially the Gulf countries. In particular, he developed relationships with Qatar, which was symbolically represented by the acquisition by a Qatari fund of the Paris-Saint-Germain club in 2011.

The action triggered a debate in France on Qatar’s influence in the country, even though economic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were much more significant. To distinguish himself from his predecessor, François Hollande focused instead on developing relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He also made a spectacular reconciliation with Algeria with which, following its independence war, relations had always been extremely complicated, alternating between declarations of friendship and public quarrels over a France that would not have renounced its colonial practices.

Relations were more fluid with Morocco and Tunisia, countries where decolonization had taken place peacefully. It was during Hollande’s mandate that the agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal was negotiated. In the so-called “5+1” negotiations with Iran, France has always been vigilant to ensure that the final agreement text left as few loopholes as possible and in no way allows Iran to escape its non-proliferation obligations. In 2014, Laurent Fabius, then Foreign Minister, was accused of delaying the agreement after refusing to sign a first draft defended by Barack Obama because he did not find it sufficiently binding on Iran.

The establishment of a French military base in the United Arab Emirates signified a growing strategic alliance between Abu Dhabi and Paris. In addition to a French military base - the only one built outside France in a country with which it did not have a historical colonial past - the establishment of the Louvre and the Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi gave a cultural and strategic dimension to France’s relationships with Arab countries.

In the campaign for the 2017 elections, Emmanuel Macron made a splash by declaring that colonization had been a crime against humanity. This declaration was enthusiastically welcomed in Algeria. It struck a chord with the nostalgic people of French Algeria, who are still quite numerous in France. Pragmatic, while also claiming to be a Gallic-Mitterrandist, Emmanuel Macron was going to maintain the established course of wanting to maintain a high level of cooperation with the Arab countries.

After the signing of the Abraham Accords, Macron said on Twitter: “I salute the courageous decision of the United Arab Emirates and hope that it will contribute to the establishment of a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” Therefore, there is clear public support from France for the diplomatic process in which the United Arab Emirates is engaged. Moreover, France has, from the outset, pleaded for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Emmanuel Macron was surprised and disturbed when, in the fall of 2020, a campaign on Islamophobia in France was launched that called for a boycott of French products spread throughout the Muslim world. How did things end up like this? How can we explain that the most popular Western country in the Muslim world in 2003 became the most unpopular Western country in 2020? There are a combination of diplomatic and domestic policy reasons.

On the diplomatic level, memories of chivalrous opposition to the Iraq war have gradually faded. Since then, the various French presidents have rather wanted to resume cooperation with the United States while respecting the principle of “allies and non-aligned.” The reintegration of France into the integrated command of NATO, decided by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009, was seen by some as an attempt to erase French diplomacy’s previous specificities.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to reunite a population that is beginning to distrust him in the face of restrictions on freedoms and an economic crisis, had found it expedient to present Macron as an enemy of Islam. Indeed, France and Turkey are diplomatically opposed to each other on several issues. The issues have ranged from Turkish ships' presence in what Greece considers its territorial waters, support for opposing camps in Libya, Turkey military's attack on the Syrian Kurds whose role had been decisive in the defeat of ISIS, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has added another bone of contention.

As time went by, France became less active on the Palestinian issue, as it has wearied successive governments that nevertheless remain sensitive about the issue’s impact on opinions. Historically, French leaders have been sensitive to unfounded and unjust accusations of anti-Semitism, due to vivid memories of the Jewish genocide and collaboration under the Vichy regime. In addition, Palestinian divisions, feelings of loneliness, and, ultimately, of powerlessness to redress the situation have led France to pursue priorities other than the Palestinian question. However, it was, above all the debates on French domestic policy that gave rise to this perception.

In 2006, the weekly Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper. In France, there is no such crime of blasphemy, and it is possible to criticize all religions. Some Muslims felt directly attacked and humiliated and protested against the publication of the cartoons. This was perceived by some as an infringement of freedom of expression and led to endless debates on the limits of freedom of expression and respect for others’ opinions. Jacques Chirac had considered the cartoons offensive, but he did not have the legal authority or the will to ban them. French Muslim organizations filed a complaint which was dismissed by the courts. In 2015, the attack against Charlie Hebdo created a very strong emotional reaction, with 4 million people going out to demonstrate following these attacks. Once again, a connection between Muslims and terrorists was made.

There has always been a racist minority in France, one which used the 2001 attacks to make an association between terrorism and Islam and arguing that if all Muslims were not terrorists, all terrorists were Muslims. This was of course false: the Basques, the Irish, the Sikhs also knew about terrorism, and moreover it was the Muslims who were the first victims of terrorism. But, through repetition, this argument began to pay off. At the same time, it must be admitted that colonization and the wars of decolonization have left their mark. Nearly 60 years after the Évian Accords signing, there are still wounds that have not healed.

The Rassemblement National (RN), an extreme right-wing party, has been very powerful politically in France since its leader Marine Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the 2017 presidential election. Today’s polls suggest that such confrontation could occur again for the 2022 elections, this time with a higher score for Marine Le Pen. She is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was an opponent of De Gaulle and a strong supporter of French Algeria, opposing the Évian Accords. Marine Le Pen embraces an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim discourse, presenting them as a threat to French identity. She surfs on the emotion created by extremist attacks and on the influx into Europe of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The success of her speech makes right-wing political formations believe they are obliged to more or less take up her argument in order not to leave her free rein, including Emmanuel Macron himself, who does not want to leave her a monopoly on hardline discourses on security issues. But such reactions by the President may also have the undesired effect of giving credibility to Marine Le Pen’s public comments.

Strangely enough, the increasingly visible presence of Muslims in France and their integration into society has provoked negative reactions from others. Arabs who were immigrants living in homes to work abroad in the 1960s had seen family reunification. Their children became French and gradually began to study and claim a full place in French society. While the majority accepted this, an active minority claimed it endangered French identity. In response to this argument, many would reply that France had always been a land of immigration and that it had successively integrated Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, and now North Africans. But some right-wing magazines increased their anti-Islamic coverage.

France is not an Islamophobic country. There are Islamophobes in France. There is no law discriminating against Muslims in France. But it is a social and economic reality. On a daily basis, there is more discrimination against citizens of Arab origin or Muslim faith than against others. The President of the Republic himself has recognized this and affirmed his willingness to combat them. There has been progress over the last 30 years and further progress remains to be made.

Some publications offend Muslims’ sensibilities, but laws on freedom of expression protect them. Many intellectuals defend Muslim populations. The principle of French secularism is difficult to understand abroad. The principle lies in the freedom to believe or not to believe. There is no religion for the state, as Catholicism once was. However, this notion of secularism is sometimes hijacked by some to wrongly transform it as being against religion, especially Islam.

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