France and the Arab-World Upheavals: from friend to foe

Anis Nacrour, French diplomat and EU chargé d'affaires to Syria with Dr Rodger Shanahan, non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy

Co-presented with the French Embassy, in collaboration with the School of Languages and Cultures, the Department of French Studies the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, and in association with the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences research network ‘Religion, State and Society in the Muslim World’

5 November, 2013

Since the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, followed by those of President Moubarak in Egypt and Colonel Kaddafi in Libya, France has been one of the West’s strongest and most vocal supporters of the "Arab" street protesters against their leadership. This support, however, has proven to be more declamatory than tangible.

There are many profound and sometimes unconscious reasons for this sudden French need to assert its position in defending the oppressed and unaccounted-for.

These reasons combine multiple factors, which are in part coherent but also contradictory. The first factor is historical, past and recent, comprising both France’s unhealed wounds from decolonisation and its moments of glory that hark back to the French Revolution. The second is sociological: the growing political influence of young French citizens of Arab background, whether Christian or Muslim. The third is geopolitical: France’s diminishing political stature in world’s affairs, including a considerable reduction in military deployment capacity as a result of significant budget cuts. Finally, France is suffering from a slow but constant economic recession.

Unconditionally supportive of the popular mobilisations, the persistently "romantic" French foreign policy of the past two and a half years is challenged today by the rapidly changing dynamics and nature of the original terms of the revolt: freedom of expression, political and institutional reform, respect for human rights, rule of law and accountability.

Today, the French political leadership is caught wrong-footed as its dominant position is out of tune with the more pragmatic approaches of its partners within the EU as well as with the US. With no alternative script to play out, French diplomacy is now entangled in a series of principles that have become irrelevant, informing positions it can no longer hold.

Anis Nacrour

Anis Nacrour is a French diplomat and currently EU chargé d'affaires to Syria. He is fluent in four languages and holds a PhD in political science from the Université de Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne). He has held senior French diplomatic posts in Algeria, Bahrain, Great Britain, Israel, Qatar, the US and Yemen. He has worked on secondment from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs as political and security adviser to Tony Blair on the Middle East Peace Process (2007-10) as well as in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Service (1996-97). Dr Nacrour is speaking at this Sydney Ideas event in a private capacity as an expert on the region and not as a representative of either the French government or the European Union.

Dr Rodger Shanahan

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and part-time member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. He is also an alumnus of the University of Sydney, from which he holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies. A former army officer, he had extensive service within the Parachute Battalion Group (PBG) and served operationally with the UN in South Lebanon and Syria, with the PBG in East Timor, in Beirut as the Military Liaison Officer during the 2006 war and in Afghanistan several times since 2008. He has also been posted to the Australian Embassies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. He is the author of Clans, Parties and Clerics: the Shi’a of Lebanon.