Will France's New President Rise To The Challenge Of A Changing North Africa?

France has close by complicated relationships with countries like Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, where the effects of the Arab spring may vary but cannot be undone. After sometimes tense relations with Nicolas Sarkozy, what approach will François Hollande

Big expectations for François Hollande in North Africa (Fabien Ecochard)
Big expectations for François Hollande in North Africa (Fabien Ecochard)
Abdelmalek Alaoui

PARIS - The new French President has just arrived in office, but already has a heavy load: the Franco-German relationship, the G8, the Greek crisis. François Hollande's attention is turned to the world super-powers and his European partners. What lies beyond the Mediterranean Sea doesn't seem to be part of his immediate agenda, in spite of its importance. And yet, the Maghreb's future is essential for France.

France is Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia's first economic partner. The country has an essential role to play in this region, whether it be in political cooperation, regional integration, migration flows control or democratization.

Maghreban capitals are waiting with great interest for François Hollande's first speech on the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), for example. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy carried this project forward single-handedly, and the UfM is the embodiment of France's desire to see the Mediterranean Sea as "a lake that brings people closer" and not a "dividing sea."

The continuation of this beautiful project – which suffered from a lack of concrete actions – would send a strong signal to the Maghreb: it would mean that Paris intends to remain the driving force of European efforts to integrate the South. It would mean that France wants to continue working with its North African and Middle Eastern partners, even if these countries are weathering through difficult times.

France's view of the Arab world

A year after the Arab Spring and all the changes it set in motion, the nature of the relationship between France and the Maghreb needs to be put in question. After a spate of anti-Arab statements during the French presidential election campaign, the upcoming legislative elections must be seized as an opportunity to encourage tolerance and respect – principles put forward by François Hollande during his campaign.

The whole of Maghreb is waiting for this kind of message, because many of them have a cousin, a brother or an aunt living and working in France, and who is worried about the durability of his or her stay.

But beyond symbols, there are high expectations for François Hollande on foreign policy issues concerning the Maghreb. In Algeria -France's former colony- reconciliation will be at the core of the new President's agenda. In Tunisia –which used to be a French Protectorate- France should play a role in the country's transition, notably in the economic field. In Morocco, aside from the construction of a railway between Tangier and Casablanca, France should continue to support the autonomy plan outlined by Morocco in Western Sahara.

François Hollande won't be in uncharted waters here. As First Secretary of the Socialist Party, he often travelled to the Maghreb to meet the main political and economic figures, and even State leaders. He knows the issues on which he will have to take a stand quickly. Let's just hope that his actions are those of a President, and not dictated by a partisan agenda that some might be tempted to influence.

Read the article in French in Le Nouvel Observateur.

Photo - Fabien Ecochard

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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