France’s Multifaceted Approach in Iraq
The visit of French President Emanuel Macron to Iraq and his participation at the Baghdad Conference in August 2021 alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and other regional leaders raised questions about Paris’ new ambitions in Iraq and the region. France’s ambitions in Iraq are often observed through its opportunistic radar towards US military withdrawal, increasing presence neighboring Türkiye, or connecting its network of influence between Beirut and Baghdad, or through economic interests. However, one must acknowledge that France’s moves towards Iraq present a multi-varied analysis that cannot overlook nor overemphasize a particular angle only, and that is the consequence of countries with rich regional and global geopolitical and economic interconnectivity such as Iraq.
Historically, France’s activities in the Middle East cannot overlook its rivalry with Britain and its fears towards oil supplies dominated by Anglo-American forces. Beyond the Maghreb, France was excluded from other Arab trading partnerships by the Anglo-American power. However, Iraq presented France as the only exception where the latter enjoyed a 25% stake in Iraq’s oil production since the 1920s and eventually became Iraq’s main trading, military, and nuclear technology partner by the late 1970s. Paris also armed and supported Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, particularly higher-technology equipment. French-Iraqi relations severed when France joined its Anglo-Saxon partners during the first Gulf War in 1990 against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Iraq war of 2003 led to the breakup of the 20th century Big Three alliance between the US, UK, and France. Nevertheless, a US-France ideological clash of values and principles always existed. It is a sensitive manner that needs to be considered by both Paris and Washington. For instance, French President Jacques Chirac’s administration (1995-2007) was presented as more of an opponent to US unilateralism due to its objection to the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003.
France revived its Middle East presence and cooperation with Iraq when it supported the latter in its war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (DAESH) through political, military, and humanitarian means. France was and is the second most strategic partner in the Global Coalition against DAESH, with 200 French soldiers on the ground for field and training purposes. France also supported and trained Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces in 2016 during its battle against DAESH. In 2020, Iraq ranked second in the list of countries benefiting from French aid. Between 2017-2021, French aid to Iraq reached 60 million euros. Trade exchange between both countries reached 1.3 billion euros by 2019.
French Revival via the Middle East
Iraq and its ethno-sectarian sister model, Lebanon, could also happen to be case studies or fields utilized by President Macron to promote a more expanding France willing to lead a post-Brexit Europe and an outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a more engaging power in the Middle East following a gradual US decreasing influence. In other words, it could just be about France more than it is about Lebanon or Iraq.
Lebanon’s economic and political crisis, followed by the explosion on August 4, 2020, was on Macron’s radar. The French president visited Beirut twice to meet people near the explosion area and had meetings with the Lebanese authorities and officials to discuss the formation of a new government that would present policy reforms. France’s different or, to some extent softer view of Hezbollah reflected its ability to infiltrate the Lebanese political class in contrast to the paralyzed stance of the US and its allies due to their complete rejection of acknowledging a Lebanese government that is partnered with Iran’s ally; Hezbollah.
The Baghdad Conference was originally a French project planned with Iraq’s former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, and due to delays and change of plans, it ended up being facilitated in Baghdad with a more regional angle that had to include Macron due to the French initial involvement. It was a golden opportunity for France to present itself as a ‘regional mediator’ upon its efforts attempts in Lebanon, a US military withdrawal from Iraq, and a way to balance power with Türkiye and Iran.
Furthermore, the cultural message portrayed by Macron’s visit to Iraq reflects a typical French distinction in values in contrast to US foreign policy. Macron visited a Shi'ite Islamic shrine in Baghdad and a post-DAESH war destroyed church in Mosul. These political moves reflect the French ability to culturally connect with eastern societies, beyond geopolitics and economics.
The propaganda campaign led by Macron’s team to promote a ‘French savior’ should not be underestimated; a role that suits a post-Brexit Europe and adds domestic points back in France for people seeking France’s current relevance in international power.
Re-Entering the Powerhouses
Two different power dynamics should be considered when overlooking the recent French approach towards Iraq: global and regional. The latter indicates a French attempt to increase its presence in a region that is dominated by the two regional powerhouses of Ankara and Tehran. Iraqi and Lebanese politics is impacted by a significant Iranian influence, and Paris is indirectly betting on its historical ability to conduct better dialogue with interest groups that are associated with the Islamic Republic. Moreover, the relationship between Paris and Ankara must also be considered when understanding France’s new policy towards Iraq. Tensions between Türkiye and France arose as their geostrategic interests clashed in Africa, particularly in Libya. However, the diplomatic tensions between both countries reportedly calmed as President Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June 2021 to resolve differences.
Beyond the Middle Eastern powers, France also monitors increasing Chinese influence in regions where Paris enjoyed more economical and political weight. Africa is also a continent with increasing Chinese influence that concerns Paris. For the past two decades, China allegedly managed to replace France and even the United States as the dominant foreign economic partner to many African countries, particularly those with ex-colonial ties to France. While China has engaged with many Western African countries through debt lending, which led to the latter providing large percentages of its GDP to China, the global superpower is also heavily involved in the energy industry among the Gulf states and Iraq. Out of 26 oil fields in Iraq, 13 are managed by Chinese companies, in contrast to one oil field for each of the US and French companies. This also indicates France’s attempt to engage in a country where it can balance with Chinese economic influence beyond Africa. France’s giant TotalEnergies, is the only French oil and gas company managing a gas field in Iraq and its $27 billion contract was signed only shortly after President Macron’s last visit to Baghdad.
On top of that, the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and several minor withdrawals from Iraq during former US President Donald Trump’s administration encouraged France to re-strategize its involvement in the Middle East. President Joe Biden’s administration presented itself to increase focus on the South China sea and gradually distance itself from the Middle East region. This paves the way for France to enhance its political role in the region as it works towards enhancing economic and trade ties with big consuming economies.
Expectations From France’s Iraq Policy?
Politically, if President Macron continues to initiate problem-solving plans for Iraq and even Lebanon in the shorter term, then it could reflect a more serious commitment to witness more implementation than planning and PR. Economically, if France’s economic investments are not limited by Iraq’s latest deal with Total Energies, then an unofficial economic competition with China might be considered. As for displacing the US influence in Iraq, it is not a matter of competition more than it is a matter of comparison. The United States did not present any indicators of conducting a geostrategic rivalry with China in Iraq, in contrast to France and China in Africa. A new Western power or ‘ally’ entering Iraq’s geopolitical and domestic dynamics must do so by finding and creating incentives towards building direct partnerships with Iraq, beyond Iran’s network of influence, or else it will repeat the failures of Washington in Iraq.