Cover Graphic: Jimena Madrigal, 2nd-year student in the Campus of Reims, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
By PIERRE CHARKI,
2nd-year Student in the Euro-North America program at the Campus of REIMS
Early summer 2020 in France has been marked by some notable events. Among these was French President Emmanuel Macron sending in warplanes into the Greek islands, in an attempt at hampering Turkey’s ambitions in the area. This is already quite impressive in itself, and is even more so when we consider both countries’ NATO membership, as well as the fact that—apart from Syria and Libya—there has been no major conflict in the region that has involved this many actors, as well as few common policies on Europe’s behalf since the creation of the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008. Such aggressivity was therefore quite surprising for many. It becomes even more important when looking at the broader frame of Macron’s foreign policy in the Mediterranean, which can be summarised—to a certain extent—through the following elements: Lebanon, Libya, oil and migrants.
First of all, we can discuss Lebanon’s place in the French President’s foreign policy. Few are unaware of the explosion in Beirut that caused the death of at least 190 people and injured more than 6,000. Following the international shock this provoked, President Macron was among the first to not only promise help, but to also make the trip to Beirut to express his sympathy for the Lebanese people. This visit had several purposes. First, obviously, it was meant to express his support. The second aim was to keep up with the tradition of French Presidents—first started under François Mitterrand—to support Lebanon in times of crisis. Mitterrand had first come after the infamous “Drakkar” attacks, Jacques Chirac after the assassination of former Lebanese President Hariri, followed by Nicolas Sarkozy who visited in the midst of a dire political crisis in 2008, and finally François Hollande who expressed his gratefulness towards the people of Lebanon, who had shown tremendous solidarity towards Syrian refugees. Lastly, this visit can be seen as part of a larger policy aimed at gaining influence around the Mediterranean. By being swift in showing his support after the blast, Macron reinstated France as an international power, a position we could argue it had started to lose, or at least forgot it had, in recent years. By offering aid and support for Lebanon, France also reminded the world of its close ties with the country. And finally, it allowed Macron to gain international support, if not moral high ground.
In late July, the French Presidency had already challenged Turkey for what French authorities called a violation of Greek and Cypriot sovereignties. This followed exploratory missions by Turkish boat – who were escorted by military ships – as they scouted the area for hydrocarbons. Istanbul replied that it would consider these words null and void, and that France should stop empty boasting. However, early in August, after Turkey sent a boat to scout an area that is part of Greek national waters, Macron sent in cavalry in the form of two aircrafts and two boats (one helicopter carrier and a frigate). Such an escalation will probably not go any further, especially since the French presidency stated that this deployment was meant to preserve respect of international law and freedom of the seas, a goal which was also mentioned by Angela Merkel after her call with Turkish President Erdogan, and briefly by the Pentagon. The membership of both France and Turkey in NATO can also be seen as a barrier to any further escalation. However, the silence from the organisation is quite eloquent with regards to its efficiency in this instance. In face of this, one can be split in several parts. First, one can obviously notice how Macron is trying to set his country as an important political power, and a military one at that. In doing so, he would keep up with his usual goal of renewing France as an international power, and there would not be much surprise there. However, it is also saddening to witness the absence of a common European response. Though most countries’ attention is turned towards their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a complete absence of reaction from other European countries. Despite all the promises from Mrs Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, to make Europe an important geopolitical power, it would seem that either European unity is undermined by several different agendas, or simply that European solidarity is busy elsewhere—if not indifferent. In any case, 2020 is not likely to be remembered as a great year for European solidarity, and the turmoil in the Mediterranean has embodied that decline for over a year now.
On June 10th, the French frigate Courbet was sailing near the Libyan coast as part of the NATO Operation Sea Guardian. The French government claims that following an attempt at inspecting a Tanzanian-flagged ship suspected of carrying weapons (which was, and still is, strictly forbidden) the French boat was targeted three times by the Turkish boats that were escorting the ship. French newspapers specify that these targettings were “radar illuminations”, which according to the Ministère des Armées, is a hostile act, a claim supposedly backed by NATO procedures. All these claims are still being discussed. In other words, such an act is usually the final step before opening fire. The Libyan situation has often been the fighting ground for many foreign countries, with France and Turkey at the centre of the stage on opposite sides; with France unofficially supporting Marshal Haftar, (French missiles were found in a base left by his troops in 2019), and Turkey supporting the UN-backed government. Yet this summer has witnessed climaxes in the tensions between the two countries, with Greece and Cyprus serving as quasi-casus belli.
The Mediterranean, in recent years, has become the crest of many underlying waves. The migrant crisis, with an unprecedented (though still insufficient) media coverage has caused many disputes within European nations and has been repeatedly used in international negotiations. Turkey notably threatened to let millions of migrants and refugees through, which posed a direct threat to the rather sensitive European public opinions. The other major element involved is the discovery of hydrocarbons in the region, which are obviously the object of many claims from competing nations, among which are Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Israel. This scramble for resources has had a considerable effect on the diplomatic balance of the area, with tensions rising between Greece and Turkey. This playground has been an ideal spot for the French Presidency, keen on seeking a new area of influence, and perhaps enforcing European solidarity by helping Greece – one of the core members of the European Union. Yet let us not bet too much on solidarity, for indeed this year has been a hard one for Europe. A potential explanation for this could be the personal rivalry between President Macron and his Turkish counterpart. American author Graham Allison reminds us in his book Essence of Decision to not underestimate the importance of personalities in the game of international relations. Since the beginning of his mandate, President Macron has been on ice-cold terms with President Erdogan, with NATO being at the core of many an argument. Though the exchange of courtesies between the two governments has been quite entertaining to watch, the deterioration of the relationship is quite worrying. Never in the recent years has France sent ships into such a tense region. The opposition between the two men can be seen in many different ways. Be it through personal lifetracks, Mr Erdogan being a professional politician, while Macron was mostly unknown in politics and had never been elected before running for President. This could also be seen in how opposed they are in terms of political promises, with Mr Erdogan running on a profoundly conservative and almost reactionary agenda, while Macron has been consistently focused on progress and modernity, praising the Lutheran hard-working progressive people of Denmark over the “Gaulois réfractaires”. As this personal opposition bleeds into their respective foreign policies, Greece and Libya have presented themselves as perfect playgrounds for a face-off between the two. Whether Macron is right in this or not, one cannot help but remember that Turkey did buy S-400 missiles from Russia, missiles that are incompatible with NATO defensive systems. Such an act, no matter its justification, can hardly be taken by NATO members as anything but a slap in the face from Turkey. No matter how the Greek situation evolves, it would seem that the Mediterranean is bound to remain an ever more important scene for political struggles, and Macron certainly seems to be determined to have France play an important role in this struggle. ▣
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Alonso, Pierre, and Fabien Perrier. “Entre la Grèce et la Turquie, dangereuse escalade en Méditerranée.” Libération.fr, August 13, 2020.
CNN, Gul Tuysuz. “NATO Allies Are Facing off in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Conflict Could Entangle the Entire Region.” CNN. Accessed September 14, 2020.