Too early to predict Macron’s foreign policy despite boldness on Algeria

Sunday 14/05/2017

The priorities of France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, are domestic and political. Parliamentary elections are to be in June and, unless Macron secures a majority, he will find it even more difficult to enact bold reforms that many of his country­men are in any case reluctant to accept.
The second focus of the next few weeks will be Germany and more broadly the European Union, of which Macron is a staunch defender, albeit in a much-reformed cast.
Predicting what his policy might be on the Mediterranean and in the Middle East is a hazard­ous exercise that is rather point­less. That said, a few pointers are worth noting. One of the few foreign countries the candidate for his recently founded En Marche movement visited during the presidential campaign was Algeria, where he dared recognise that France had, during the colonial period (1830-1962), committed crimes against humanity.
This provoked an uproar in France but it is worth noting that Macron also mentioned the harkis, the French native troops during the war of liberation of Algeria (1954-62) who were treated harshly by the new rulers of Algeria after 1962 and killed by the thousands.
Such behaviour speaks of boldness and a willingness to confront the blemishes of colonial history that France shares with the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Italy and others.
Algeria is in many ways the black box of French history. The far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who faced Macron in the May 7 run-off election, is the daughter of a man who tortured Algerian nationalists with his own hands when he volunteered to fight in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria in the late 1950s. Symbols do matter and not just in France.
As far as the Middle East goes, Macron has not expressed strong views, which is hardly surprising given that his speciality is finance, economic affairs and Europe.
The presidential campaign was very much focused on domestic affairs and how to revive the economy but the new president did make it clear May 3 during a very nasty debate during which he confronted Le Pen that condemning terrorists, particu­larly French-born ones, was fine but that understanding what led them to commit such acts was also critical.
He refused to give any sweeping condemnation of Islam, unlike former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, conservative candidate François Fillon and Le Pen. In a country as deeply fractured as France, refusing to pander to the lowest common denominator is a good sign. That will not in itself stop the wave of populism but for the republican monarch, which is what the president of France is, symbols matter.
A further point is worth making. Macron’s adviser on Middle East affairs is none other than Jean-Claude Cousseran. Former director-general of external security, ambassador to Iraq, Tehran, director of strategy at the Ministry of Defence and director of Middle East and North Africa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cousseran, who has roots in Jewish Cairo, is a diplomat’s diplomat. A consummate negotia­tor, he was a key player in the negotiations that helped release French hostages in Beirut in 1985-86.
Macron’s campaign headquar­ters were the target of hacking from US right-wing groups and Russia. That is being investigated by the French government’s cyber-security agency ANSSI. His position on Russia was tougher than either Fillon’s or Le Pen’s, whose campaign was financed by Russian bank loans.
To that extent, the new presi­dent offers a line of continuity from his predecessor but, short of a major international crisis before the June elections, there is little reason to expect any major pronouncement. Macron will attend the NATO and Group of Seven summits before those elections but his focus remains firmly domestic and European.
He understands better than many French politicians that France must improve its eco­nomic performance, contain its foreign debt and reduce unemployment if it wishes to pull its weight in Europe and rebuild strong relations with Germany. That is the sine qua non of regaining any serious influence in world affairs.
As to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Macron is too wise not to understand that he has nothing to gain by shooting his mouth off — he is no Donald Trump. His key advisers are of the highest order and the region we are talking about is a minefield.
Were any terrorist attack to occur in France, Macron could rely on Jean-Michel Fauvergue, who heads RAID, an elite law enforcement unit of the French National Police. When the new government is appointed, the personality of the foreign minis­ter might tell us more about the president’s foreign policy but only time will tell. Domestic and economic issues, more than ever before, top the agenda.