François Fillon’s likely Middle East policy

Sunday 04/12/2016

In late August 2013, François Fillon denounced in no uncertain terms a prospec­tive US-French bombing operation against Syria that seemed very likely after it was alleged chemicals weapons had been used by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Fillon’s denunciation caused quite a stir in Paris as convention dictates that a French politician does not undercut his own country’s foreign policy from abroad. The shock was all the greater as the former French prime minister was speaking from the Valdai Discussion Club, where the Russian president gathers senior officials and strategists every year.

At the time, there was every likelihood of the United Kingdom joining in the operation but the British prime minister, David Cameron, then lost a vote in the House of Commons. US President Barack Obama decided to ask the US Congress for its support, which was refused. This left French officials aghast and President François Hollande looking stupid.

Fillon’s attitude towards Syria is part of a broader Gaullist world view that believes France should drop sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States on Russia following the latter’s annexation of Crimea. Closer ties to the former Soviet Union and to Russia belong to this conceptual framework that is shared by many French politi­cians of the left and right. It is not simply a matter of realpolitik.

What is not in doubt is that Obama’s failure to follow through with his threat of military intervention in Syria left the field open to Russia’s effective diplomatic and military interven­tion. It marked that country’s grand re-entry into the Middle East game after a 20-year absence.

Well before that date, however, Fillon was prime minister of a French government that helped modernise the Russian armed forces, notably by allowing the sale of two Mistral-class amphibi­ous assault ships to the Russian Navy in 2011, a deal cancelled in 2014 by Hollande.

The newly anointed conserva­tive presidential candidate shares with Russian President Vladimir Putin a conviction that Christian­ity is under threat from Islam, an idea that strongly resonates in France, which has been trauma­tised by jihadist terrorism.

The two men share a very conservative social ideology but how far France can go in calling for an end to EU-US sanctions against Russia and go against France’s closest ally, Germany, remains in doubt. What US President-elect Donald Trump decides will carry far more weight.

Where Syria is concerned, Fillon has a weak hand to play. A country that had, since the second world war, been a good friend to France, its former colon­iser, was lost when former president Jacques Chirac decided to back claims that the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated by Syrian agents in 2003. The allegations proved to be unfounded but the accusations infuriated Assad and France lost much of its traditional influence in Damascus to Amer­ica.

Fillon has said a deal should be done with the Syrian leader as he is best placed to defeat the Islamic State, despite his brutal­ity in repressing the revolt that has engulfed his country since 2011.

Fillon probably never believed France, Britain or the United States had any intention of putting boots on the grounds to get rid of Assad. This reluctance has long made the grandstanding of US, French and British leaders vis-à-vis Assad ring hollow. France’s strong backing for Israel, which has characterised the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande, is unlikely to change.

Where North Africa is con­cerned, strong support for Tunisia’s democratic experiment will continue as will close ties with Morocco. Algeria is more of a puzzle.

Traditionally, the provincial Catholic middle classes, from whose ranks Fillon hails, have no love lost for a country that was once part of France but Fillon’s determination to fight Islamist terror will go down well in Algiers. Since independence in 1962, Algerian leaders have preferred dealing with conserva­tive presidents in Paris rather than socialist ones.

Algeria is a good market for French exports, boasts a very active diplomacy and remains a key bulwark against Islamist terrorism in North Africa. It enjoys good relations with Iran and has recently been asked by Saudi Arabia, with whom relations have long been frosty, to help bring the two sides to the negotiation table in Yemen.

So, while the Catholic provin­cial middle classes might not like the idea of closer relations with the former Algérie française, nor does the leader of the National Front, against whom he might well be pitted in the run-off next May. Fillon knows that winning presidential elections remains essentially predicated on domestic policies. That is unlikely to change.

Be it Syria or Russia, but particularly in the first case, France will continue to enjoy an essentially walk-on part. As much as French people may be appalled by what is happening in Syria they have no desire to get further involved. While presi­dential elections are decided on essentially domestic issues, a major Islamist-inspired terrorist attack before the election would probably strengthen the hand of a candidate seen as having wide experience in government, which is not the case of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.