Not since Napoleon stepped foot on the shores of Alexandria in July 1798, embarking on his short-lived invasion of Egypt, has a Frenchman so imperiously sought to topple a native regional power in the eastern Mediterranean while still appealing to the local population.
"General Bonaparte gives a saberto the military leader of Alexandria, July 1798", by François-Henri Mulard, 1808. Oil on canvas, H. 2,21; L. 2,90. Versailles, Castle and Trianons.
Under the name of “God, on whom all depends,” Napoleon appealed to the people and the elites of Egypt by assuring that: “I come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers, and that I respect God, His Prophet Muhammad, and the Qur’an, far more than do the Mamluks.”
He promised them self-rule away from the influence of foreign powers, stating that: “All Egyptians will be called forward to manage all places. The wisest, most educated and most virtuous of them will govern, and the people will be happy.” He did not tell them, of course, that the French would be the overlords of that apparent self-rule for four years, until the British forced them to retreat.
Over two centuries later, we now have President Emmanuel Macron who toured the streets of Lebanon’s capital of Beirut, following the catastrophic explosion last month, walking among the rubble and consoling the people. He assured them that their old beloved France would save them from the blunders of a native, corrupt and incompetent government, promising to send the Lebanese government a roadmap for reforms that it would implement to get back on its feet.
Macron in Beirut. Photo AFP
That draft proposal for reforms was recently sent to the Lebanese government and its political blocs by the French embassy, consisting of a general outline of reforms needed, regarding finance, international humanitarian aid, the construction of improved governance systems, combatting smuggling and corruption, improving the electricity sector and rebuilding Beirut’s destroyed port.
France even gave a time limit for those reforms to be implemented depending on their importance, with limits ranging from one month to a year. And it did not finish there, but also threatened Lebanese politicians with sanctions if the reforms are not implemented on time.
Those reforms and their stated goals seem all well and good on the face of it, but the paper has one underlying condition for Lebanon’s revival: France must lead the process. Paris will reportedly be playing a major role in the reforms, with its teams being offered and deployed for the financial audit of the Bank of Lebanon, the improvement of its healthcare, the setting of early elections and the rebuilding of the port.
With the diplomatic and financial leverage, this leading role would give France – backed up by the threat of sanctions – a position as the colonial power it once was, rather than a nation in solidarity with another nation.
Macron’s actions against Turkey – a local and native power in the region – is also a cause for concern when it comes to France’s true intentions. Last week, he stressed a “red-line policy” against Turkey’s assertion of its rights in the eastern Mediterranean, choosing to side with Greece and its attempts to invade and severely limit Turkish territorial waters.
When justifying his reasons for setting those red lines, he repeated the old colonial notion that the Orient only respects strength and force rather than diplomacy. “I can tell you that the Turks only consider and respect that,” he noted, ignoring the fact that it is Turkey that has repeatedly been calling for negotiations, while Greece has constantly refused to engage in them.
Turkey has, of course, recognised France’s colonial manner and – although Turkey has itself offered help to Lebanon and assistance in rebuilding its port – has spoken out against it. In a press conference, following talks with representatives from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that: “We went to Lebanon with a hospital and food supplies. Macron goes there in colonialist arrogance looking down on everyone including the president. That is what France does anywhere it goes. We went to Haiti and saw the same. France had looted the country.”
In recent months, France has already set out on its quest to influence the European Union’s foreign policy and swing it in favour of Greece, and against Turkey, regardless of the consequences of taking such a stance. Macron’s ambitions may be more than that, though, and his staunch anti-Turkey and anti-democratic stance towards the Middle East and North Africa seems to be more than simple political posturing. What Macron is displaying, is France’s neo-Napoleonic vision and worldview, one that prefers to threaten and leverage its way across its former colonies and rivals, rather than take the path of reliable diplomacy.
In these efforts, Macron is taking an approach that is not far from his country’s old imperial model – playing to the local people’s cultural values and icons in order to lure them wilfully into France’s hands. This was clear from his meeting with the renowned Lebanese singer and cultural figure Fairuz at the start of his trip earlier in the week, awarding her the Legion of Honour [he even met singer Majda El Roumi, Tlaxcala's Note].
With Lebanon’s neighbour Syria, France has also been playing according to its expansionist and colonial ambitions, with French delegations having travelled to north-east Syria to meet with Kurdish militia representatives and members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. Those meetings, as well as the French provision of aid to Iraqi Kurdistan, were attempts to build relations with some of the main players in a divided country and region, increasing its leverage over the situation there.
Macron is attempting to make France a guarantor power and an intermediary in its old colonies of Lebanon and Syria, and it would be naïve to expect its neo-Napoleonic attempts to set red lines against regional powers to be left unchallenged.