Chirac's 'New Arab Policy' and Middle East Challenges: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Iraq and Iran

Article excerpt

President Jacques Chirac's `new Arab policy' is aimed at reversing France's marginalization as a political player in the Middle East and reasserting its role as an active and influential player in the region. Yet Chirac's ambitious agenda may be difficult to implement in view of the fact that the United States is determined to maintain its predominant position in the region. Although the United States continues to dominate the Arab-Israeli peace process, France's strategy of pursuing an active foreign policy has been strengthened by support from the United Nations and the European Union.

On 8 April 1996, French president Jacques Chirac, in the midst of a high-profile visit to the Middle East, proclaimed to students at the University of Cairo that "France's Arab policy must be an essential element of its foreign policy."1 Invoking the tradition of one of his predecessors, President Charles de Gaulle (1958-69) and his famous `politique arabe,' Chirac stated his intention of giving new momentum to French foreign policy. He thus signaled his determination to reverse France's marginalization as a political player in the Middle East, particularly noticeable in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, and reassert an active and influential French role in the region. Yet Chirac's ambitious agenda may be difficult to implement in view of the fact that the United States is determined to maintain its predominant position in the region and to resist any diplomatic/political intervention at variance with its own perceived interests. France's backing of the "land for peace" option in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, its support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and for Palestinian leader Yasir `Arafat, and its willingness to denounce certain Israeli practices, such as the building of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank,2 contrasts with the more unqualified US support for Israel. In addition, France opposed US threats to launch air strikes against Iraq to force compliance with UN resolutions, and was one of the major supporters of the decision in February 1998 to allow Iraq to increase the amount of oil it could sell under the "oil for food" agreement.3 France was also critical of the US embargo of Iran and the US policy of "dual containment,"4 as well as the Helms-Burton Act and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA),5 which penalize foreign companies conducting business with Iran among other countries.6

Despite these differences with the United States, the open hostility which existed between the two governments during de Gaulle's era has largely disappeared. In August 1997, French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine (June 1997 - present) remarked that France was only "one of seven or eight influential world powers" and must accept the superpower status of the United States, "without acrimony," while still defending its own interests? The French government recognizes the important political role of the United States in the Middle East and regularly insists that its own efforts complement rather than compete with American leadership.8 There has been significant coordination and cooperation between France and the United States over some issues, such as the UN embargo imposed on Iraq since 1991, when the interests of the two powers have coincided. Nevertheless, the French government remains determined to wield its political power in world affairs by means of creating a counter force to the United States in what Chirac sees as an emerging multipolar world.9

In order to mitigate its middle power status and enhance its influence and position in the Middle East, the French government has concentrated on a combination of strategies. Chirac's two high-profile trips to the Middle East in April and October 1996, French foreign minister Herve de Charette's (1995-97) shuttle diplomacy in response to the crisis following Israel's April 1996 "Grapes of Wrath" operation in Lebanon,10 and Vedrine's diplomatic efforts to avoid US air strikes against Iraq in February 1998, exemplify the French government's determination to play a role in the region. …