Macron Impresses in Diplomacy, Initiatives on Syria, Libya and Palestine

Paris – Three months-and-a-half after his election as French president, Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has started to slip in opinion polls, as demonstrated by three surveys conducted in the past ten days.

An Ifop poll on July 23 showed that he lost ten points from his popularity since June. A Harris institute poll showed similar results. The most worrying figures were revealed by Ipsos that showed that Macron has dropped in opinion more than his predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in the same period since their election.

The development prompted the young 39-year-old president to vent his frustrations against his minsters during the latest government meeting, reported Le Figaro newspaper. He urged the ministers not be “hostages” in the hands of their administrations.

Observers attributed the difficult phase Macron is passing through to the austerity measures that the cabinet approved to combat the country’s budget deficit. They also attributed it to the “rude” way he had treated Pierre de Villiers, former chief of staff, which forced him to resign. In addition, Macron’s tendency to meet with a number of celebrities was also met with disapproval by the French people.

There is a field where the French president has however been applauded and that is the diplomatic and foreign policy arenas. This was evident soon after he assumed the reins of the presidency and his successive successful meetings with several major world leaders, whether at the G7 or G20 summits or during their visits to France.

His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Versailles Palace at the end of May and his talks later with US President Donald Trump on July 13 and 14 have cemented Macron’s image on the global scene and returned France to the heart of international meetings. We should also point out to the Elysee Palace’s successive hosting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and dozens of others heads of states and governments who flocked to Paris to meet the new president.

Commenting on Macron’s dynamism in foreign policy, French author and political analyst Renaud Girard told Asharq Al-Awsat that the president “wants to return France to the map of global contacts after a nearly five-year absence” under Hollande.

“The new president cannot be blamed for what he is doing, but he should be encouraged because he has ideas and proposals over how to deal with hot spots in the world,” he added.

Regarding the Arab world and Middle East, Macron has so far demonstrated that he wants to play a role in the Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Palestinian-Israeli files and the war on terrorism.

Before all that however, said Girard, Macron has sought to pave a new path of dealing with the world’s two major powers, the US and Russia, due to the decisive impact they have on several contentious issues.

Strategic analysts noted that what sets Macron apart is not just the new French “desire” for Paris to be “present” on the global stage, but the different “methodology” he has adopted. According to Girard, this methodology is based on first, restoring the so-called independent policy that was adopted by past presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand.

The second factor in the young president’s methodology is his reliance on “political realism” in dealing with crises and influential powers.

Perhaps the clearest example of Macron’s approach was the lavish way he received Putin at Versailles by putting out the red carpet and doing everything possible within protocol. This came in contrast to the behavior of Hollande, who last year, attempted to manipulate Putin over Russian shelling of Syria’s Aleppo, prompting the Moscow leader to cancel a scheduled visit to Paris.

The second example of Macron’s approach was reflected in his policy on the Syrian crisis whereby he did not hesitate in shifting Paris’ stance. Once one of the most ardent backers of the Syrian regime, France now no longer demands the ouster of regime leader Bashar Assad. Macron went so far as to consider him the only legitimate figure in the war-torn country despite the crimes that have been committed during his term. The French president added that no one “has presented a legitimate” alternative to Assad, a statement which naturally alarmed and frustrated the Syrian opposition.

Macron also does not shy away from using historic symbols and occasions to further fuel his dynamic diplomacy. He invited Putin to visit France on the same day that marked the 300th anniversary of Russian Czar Peter the Great’s visit to the country. He also used the 100th anniversary of US intervention in the First World War to invite US President Donald Trump to attend the French Independence Day parade on July 14. Macron used the 75th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps to invite Netanyahu to attend a ceremony marking the occasion.

According to French analysts, Macron “employs” historic anniversaries to build direct relations with his guests.

The truth of the matter is that Macron, through his rapprochement with Trump and Putin, wants to play the role of the mediator, French diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat. This is possible because he is the “only” European leader capable of playing this role because German Chancellor Angela Merkel is preoccupied with September elections in her country and British Prime Minister Theresa May is busy with Brexit.

In light of his meetings with Putin and Trump, Macron received the “green light” to launch his own initiative on Syria that is based on launching a “contact group” that includes the five major members of the United Nations Security Council and a number of regional countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran and possibly Iraq.

In the Palestinian-Israeli file, Macron is banking on the “personal” relations he forged with Abbas and Netanyahu to try to move forward the peace negotiations that have been suspended since 2014.

In the Libyan crisis, which poses a threat to France and Europe, Macron succeeded in bringing together rival leaders Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister of the UN-backed government Fayez al-Sarraj. The French president also persuaded the Libyan officials to sign an agreement that includes a ceasefire and vow to hold legislative and presidential elections in spring 2018.

After reading the above evidence, it becomes clear that Macron wants his country to be at the heart of contacts. Desire and will are one thing, while achieving results are a whole other issue however. So far, we are in the preparation phase for the real action, except in the Libyan file. What is certain though is that Macron has so far passed the international diplomacy test. All that remains is accomplishing success in internal challenges and reform of all kinds that he pledged to achieve to the French people during his presidential campaign …. but this is another story.