PARIS — In diplomacy, there's always room for talk, even when the window for negotiation seems all but shut.
Such is the scenario that Emmanuel Macron faces in wake of the assassination by the United States of Ghassem Soleimani, an act that has kicked up a whirlwind in the Middle East, with consequences that remain unclear.
After a telephone call with Donald Trump on Sunday, the French president called on Tehran to refrain from any "military escalation likely to further aggravate regional instability" and to put an end to the "destabilizing activities of the Quds Force" in the region. The statement, released by the Elysee presidential office, also noted "full solidarity" with Paris' allies in regards to attacks that have taken place in recent weeks on coalition forces in Iraq.
Iran announced overnight that it had fired missiles at several Iraqi military bases that host American troops. No casualties were reported.
Macron, who has invested heavily in recent months to save the Iranian nuclear agreement (from which the United States withdrew in May 2018), wants to maintain a position of balance, without overtly criticizing the Trump administration. The Elysee says it wants to keep an eye on Iranian influence in the region, but without joining one camp or the other. The focus, in other words, is on prioritizing and anticipating.
Our role is to make calls for calm.
Fearing greater regional destabilization, the French president's top priority is the fight against armed jihadism. Tellingly, the Elysee was careful in its press release to avoid any mention of Soleimani's killing. The issue didn't appear either in the official reports that followed Macron's talks, since Friday, with other actors in this developing crisis, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed ben Zayed.
On Sunday night, Macron signed a joint statement together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for "deescalation." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Europeans had not been "helpful" enough in supporting Washington.
"Our role, because of the fact that we've kept in communication with Iran, is to make calls for calm," says Michel Duclos, special adviser at the Paris-based Montaigne Institute think tank.
Rouhani, Putin & Erdogan in 2017 — Photo: Kremlin
"There's a strategic context here in which it wasn't absurd for the United States to move against Iran and raise the stakes," he adds. "Soleimani's death is not a declaration of war, but an act in a war that had already begun. The United States had been losing ground since it failed to respond to the Sept. 14 attack against oil installations in Saudi Arabia. The Americans have now rewritten the rules of engagement in the region, making them more robust when their interests are attacked. The problem is that the deterrence strategy doesn't also cover American allies."
The situation, with questions now being raised over the U.S. military presence in Iraq, worries France on the operational level with regards to the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). "We're not at all ready for an immediate withdrawal," the Elysee stated.
Right now, U.S. forces deployed in the region are having to focus on their own security as they wait to see Tehran's response. France's priority, in the midst of this uncertain escalation, is to save the international coalition, as Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained directly Sunday night in a telephone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdoul Mahdi.
This is a quintessential case of escalation.
But there isn't a lot of room for France and Europe to maneuver. "This is a quintessential case of escalation, with a classic problem of interpretation, on both sides, of the adversary's intentions, and we're right in the middle of the crisis," says Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) think tank.
"France has neither the mandate nor the legitimacy to exercise any mediation. But that doesn't mean she's wrong to try. Together with Russia, it is one of the only countries able to speak to everyone."
During his meeting with Vladimir Putin on Friday, Macron spoke about the situation in Libya, which is becoming, like Syria, a crossroads for all local and regional rivalries. The French president "underlined the risk of escalation as a consequence of increased foreign military interference."
He also discussed with his Russian counterpart the humanitarian situation in Idlib, in Syria, where Moscow remains the main supporter of the regime. The two leaders expressed their "shared interest," according to the Elysee press release, in reaching an agreement by Jan. 10 at the UN Security Council to preserve cross-border aid for people in distress.
Making space for diplomacy, consultation and compromise. A considerable challenge indeed given the way the winds are blowing — in the exact opposite direction.
A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.
A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."
The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.
Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."
Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021
Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021
Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?
The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.
The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.
The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."
The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."
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