On Monday, July 9, the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Barley met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss opportunities for defense and security cooperation, including upgrading the intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries. On the surface, there was nothing particularly unusual about that meeting. France and Saudi Arabia share a long history of close defense ties; members of the French Special Forces came to Saudi Arabia’s rescue during the episode with the takeover of the Grand Mosque.
Indeed, the close cooperation continues to this day. France, despite President Macron’s criticism of the Saudi-led war in Yemen in response to Iran’s weaponizing of the Houthi rebellion, continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia financed the French delivery of weapons to Africa, including Djibouti, where France has a base, in an effort to keep the local governments independent of China’s pressure. Despite the chaotic process of negotiations, Saudi Arabia’s role in the process has been an important part of France’s strategy to return to a position of influence in Africa – and perhaps elsewhere in the world. France’s involvement in Africa goes beyond simple security considerations of trying to prevent jihadists from spreading violence all over the continent, and perhaps countering another influx of refugees and migrants.
Indeed, France is closely cooperating with the United States and local governments – but perceives West Africa, the Sahel, and even North Africa, its former colonies and spheres of influence, as its responsibility – and areas where it wants to continue to stay in high regard and exert its presence. The motivations, for that are complex and range from a newfound interest in projecting political power, to a renewed interest in natural resources, to a potential for economic benefits from trade and contracts with the growing start-up scene. France has continued to import commodities from its former African colonies, and while it is less involved in trade now, it still retains control of the monetary policy and military presence. Emmanuel Macron, despite his rhetoric of regret over the French colonial past, has done nothing to loosen France’s paternalistic grip on these countries.
In fact, quite possibly, France’s involvement in Africa is increasing, and may continue to rise after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. The implications of withdrawal are straightforward. Despite Macron’s tough rhetoric on remaining in the deal, and despite the support of the remaining European partners, a number of major European companies invested in Iran suspended their business with the Islamic Republic, and some have withdrawn altogether. Although France as a country is in no danger of a total embargo as a result of support for the deal, the companies and individuals who continue to operate in the Islamic Republic may face secondary sanctions and are being forced to choose between doing business with the United States and Iran.
Naturally, some of the bigger names, such as Peugeout, Citroen, and Total were spooked by the very idea of being effectively frozen out of the US financial system. Iran is looking elsewhere for partnerships, but so is France. Some of the European countries discussed creating a side deal with Iran. All are still engaged in talks on reforming the JCPOA, but so far Iran has accused of Europeans of not delivering enough and has threatened to withdraw from the deal. Such a development would be double embarrassing to the remaining European partners in light of the confrontation with President Trump earlier over that very issue. What’s clear is that all parties are looking for alternative routes to continuing cooperation, and Africa, which is essentially ignored by the United States but for some counterterrorism operation, provides a perfect playing field. France’s flexing of muscles in Africa may ultimately not be so innocuous after all. It can potentially challenge the US commitment to squeezing Iran financially through creation of shill companies and engagement of lesser-known and growing third parties, which are not likely to come to US attention quickly enough to get blacklisted.
Ultimately, so long as the Europeans refuse to withdraw from the JCPOA, the United States is at a disadvantage. The process of verification of accused companies will be painstaking and slow; by the time some are finally sanctioned Iran will have reaped the benefit of doing business with them. Furthermore, many will engage in ways to circumvent the negative attention; at the end of the day, even the United States cannot boycott all the companies that could potentially want to do business with Iran. Right now, the stakes are not too high – it’s easy for the US to monitor the major companies doing business with Iran, and there is much more to be gained from doing business with the well developed US.
However, once the number of companies willing to take that risk reaches a critical mass, the United States will find itself unable to keep up with the blacklist, and may ultimately punish itself and its own consumers while disengaging from the increasing number of such companies. US sanctions are only a threat if the number of companies to blacklist is sufficiently small (which it is for now because Iran does not have much to offer). Otherwise, if the number grows, the US will have to become more selective about the companies and individuals to blacklist; the process will become burdensome, and it will become increasingly easy to circumvent it. For now, it is just easier for the major players to withdraw, but smaller countries that may not be doing business with the US directly, have no incentive to leave.
That France and Iran may be building up African countries as operating fields for future joint ventures should be an issue to the United States government, as it is proceeding into a largely uncharted territory. The major companies which already withdrew from Iran may in some near future shift their business to French spheres of influence, where the process of direct and indirect business with Iran may be facilitated. The issue, however, is not just about making money off oil refinement and selling cars to an additional customer. Iran is looking towards globalizing its operations.
If, with the help of China, Russia, Europeans, and others, it can survive the initial period of sanctions and spread its wings sufficiently in Africa, it will have easy access to natural resources and new partnerships, which may compensate for the initial loss of business. The regime is patient; while it’s obvious that emerging African countries do not have the reach and influence of American investors, if they take off sufficiently over time, they can in totality be as useful as the business Iran lost from US withdrawal from JCPOA. Alternatively, jointly with France’s rising nationalistic ambitions, Iran can create another front of resistance to US leadership and advancement of its own interests. Building up an opposition to any US presence in Africa by capitalizing on weak corrupt government, general disarray, poorly educated populations, US failure at building cultural bridges, a history of diplomatic faux pas, and poorly run major international NGOs may end up threatening even the limited counterterrorism operations US is already involved in, much less any future attempts at building ties or integrating interests.
By contrast, France retained cultural, as well as political influence, and many countries throughout the continent, still look on to France as a political, educational, and cultural model and partner. For that reason, the United States is lagging behind and will be easily misled and outwitted unless it takes immediate steps to enhance its understanding of the continent’s potential use to both France and Iran, and to prepare itself for a much deeper strategic engagement. France’s growing concern with African affairs, however, is just as much about its own identity and a sense of national pride, as it is about rescuing risky investments with Iran, doing lucrative business with rising entrepreneurs, or showing up President Trump after his perceptibly unceremonious withdrawal from the JCPOA.
There are two components going into France’s renewed interests in project military strength at home and abroad: the first, is reaction to the rise of Trumpism and what many in France see as President Trump’s unilateral decisionmaking, which ends up affecting US partners just as much as the United States, as well as what is perceived as disrespectful and offensive rhetoric. The second, however, is a new wave of nationalism that has been rising in some of the European countries, for some time parallel to the rise of reactionary Trumpian politics in the United States, and the signs of which can be found even in the most stalward members of the European Union. Some of the examples of Trumpian decisions and rhetoric particularly irksome to France included the US withdrawal from the Paris climate change Accord, the US pressure on NATO allies to increase defense spending, and the infamous trade war, which has caused the European Union to unify around raising reciprocal tariffs on US goods.
All of that coupled with the threat US withdrawal from JCPOA seems to present to European business interests paints a portrait of countries increasingly in opposition to the entire US national strategy as embodied by Trump’s presidency, not merely temporary disagreement among differing administrations on some distinct matters. President Trump may very well be right to criticize the free loaders in NATO, but to do so publicly imperils the entire mission of NATO. He may also be right in demanding a level playing field for US goods in trade relations – but threats for eliminating European cars from US roads, are perceived more as a national offense than a strong negotiation tactic. That all these things are happening at the same time, and in a very in-your-face manner rather than through polite, diplomatic, nuanced parlor discussion creates a sense of challenge, particularly in younger leaders such as Macron, who feel like they have something to prove. The mutual agreement among leading members of the EU that they do, in fact, stand for something, if only united in opposition to Trumpian US, is enough of an incentive for Macron’s France to at least appear tot take decisive steps to challenge US influence and to raise France’s profile.
President Trump’s American brand populism, however, is a mere cherry on top of the dynamic which has been self-evident in the European Union for a number of years, culminating in a number of sizable victories for many populist parties and decisions across Europe, with Brexit being but one of them. Macron’s own rise is in some ways a compromise between the Russia-backed populism of Marine Le Pen, and the ineffectual economic stagnation of his predecessor, President Hollande. Le Pen’s positions on immigration struck a raw nerve with many of the French citizens, who felt their staunchly secular brand of national French identity has been eroded over time by infusion of African and Middle Eastern cultures and second-generation Islamists, who were not integrating into the French society and values.
Domestic clashes, increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents by Islamists, a number of terrorist attacks, coupled with accusations of Islamophobia from migrant and second generation communities has created rifts and a sense of cognitive dissonance within the French society which no number of hijab and religious symbols bans could quite cure. Although much of the European public was rightfully concerned about Russia taking advantage of the social upheaval to meddle in French electoral process and to spread its own propaganda, many of the grievances were legitimate, and Macron felt he had no choice but to respond by taking the country in a new direction, which could respond to the people’s inherent desire for dignity and a more vocal call for a restoration of France’s social and political importance. If you will, Macron is the French interpretation of “Making France Great Again’. His, however, is a more moderate, more strategic, and less populist response. Whether the measures he is doing will be successful in the long term remains an open question, but at the very least they are an interesting alternative to the more populist responses in Europe that have been observed thus far.
Response to the United States is only part of it. Creating a system of a common national identity appears to be more central to the social change that the political right in the France seems to be demanding. Macron’s response has been to bring back the mandatory national service for all 16-year-olds. Bringing back compulsory military service nearly two decades after it was scrapped signified a renewed focus on reestabilishing French common core values “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, as well as directing the country towards a much more muscular foreign and defense policy. And Africa is not the only former area of influence where Macron has been making visible moves. Former French Indochina area, where China has been making aggressive offensive moves, appears to be once again up for grabs. Under Macron, France increased its naval presence in the South China Sea, as a response to China’s posturing. China remains a competitor not just in Africa, but in the Pacific.
Likewise, French presence in Syria, formerly a French sphere of influence before it was claimed by the Soviets, signals that France is ready to return to the Middle East, whether anyone wants her back or not. It was French intelligence that first uncovered and released reports of Assad’s chemical attacks against civilians. Likewise, Macron in the past threatened to bring in Special Forces to counter Erdogan’s aggression in Afrin; however, the issue was ultimately settled in an agreement with Russia and the United States. Macron’s concern, of course, was less about the Kurds, victimized by Erdogan’s policy, than an opportunity to increase France’s visibility and to rekindle its reputation as a formidable military opponent (which held true, despite the frequent lapses on the policy level). Overall, Macron seeks to portray himself as an assertive leader and a man of action. For that reason, despite the many disagreements with Trump, he quickly signed on to the joint US and British airstrikes against Assad’s military targets following yet another chemical attack against civilians – though he showed no interest in confronting the Russians, and in fact looked to work out a coordination mechanism with Moscow. While Macron’s political position is less overtly pro-Russia than Marine Le Pen, who was directly funded by Putin, he is not necessarily against engaging Russia if it suits his immediate goals.
Overall, France’s rise remains in question. Will Macron invest further into the development of more sophisticated weapons, in an effort to keep up with the international arms race? Will he look to play a more prominent role in NATO and other international institutions? Will France seek to become a dealmaker, a bridgebuilder, a mediator, or an international policeman? Whatever the ultimate strategy, it is clear that France looks to remain in the public eye and to play an increasingly dominant role in foreign affairs – perhaps not to the point of restoring the colonial era entirely, but quite enough to satisfy the populists that have had it with docile past governments, and to move the onus of expectations from internal issues to external affairs.
This course of policy is not necessarily a direct threat to the United States in every way, but if the stand off-between Trump and Europeans continues without an amicable way of resolving these difference, expect a more confrontational approach, an increase in specifically anti-American rhetoric, and a series of problematic steps that could complicate the US pursuits concerning Iran and other problems. The United States should not drop the vibrant defense of its national interests just to win Macron’s approval, of course. Nevertheless, it can and should avoid further deterioration in this important relationship, particularly if it means gaining yet another obstacle in its fight to deter the world’s worst rogue actors and aggressors. Instead, the US should focus on the following positive steps in restoring and maximing opportunities for a constructive relationship with France:
First, it should focus on building up the joint efforts to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea and in Africa. China’s pervasive is threatening influence is something both countries agree on; working together can diffuse some of the tensions elsewhere and strengthen the relationship.
Second, the US should provide positive incentives for France to minimize its dealings with Iran, instead refocusing on strengthening its relationship in Saudi Arabia, and encouraging a more constructive role in Syria. Greater French presence in Syria could provide a viable alternative for the long-term involvement the United States seeks to avoid at all costs; however, without significant Western backing, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies may not prevail against the proliferation of threats. Engaging France as a partner, rather than treating it as an enemy could be away to bring France over from the “dark side”.
Third, rather than chiding France and other EU and NATO partners on their financial misgivings and tariff disputes, President Trump should come forward with bold, visionary, and creative free trade agreement, as well as a constructive series of suggestions for a more equitable arrangement within NATO, which maximizes each member’s individual contributions and potential, creating a stronger alliance and mutual support in a dignified way, that benefits both the alliance and individual goals without creating conflicts and turning into a confrontation of personalities and egos.
A more muscular and more nationalist France may prove to be a force to be reckoned with and should not be ignored or left entirely to its own devices. However, it could also be an important partner, a better friend, and an engaged ally that can be positively incentivized to respect US interests and to reassess threats in a constructive way. The current set of developments can be an opportunity or a threat – it all depends on how the United States and other partners engage with it, and whether there is willingness to understand the motives behind these moves and movements, and to address them in a way that creates additional opportunities, rather than merely underscores existing differences and tensions.