Franco-Arab relations over the past five years have been marked by three phases. “At first we were afraid that France’s policy would change, due to Mitterrand’s known ties with  Israel. Then there was a second period marked by a restoration of confidence. And finally, during the third period, there were renewed fears of a change”.

The Franco Arab relations take root in shred history, cultural exchange and the turmoil. Henry Laurens; an expert of France and the Chair of History of the Arab world is the one who explores the complex, yet the interesting basics relationship between the Arab and France (from the time of colonisation till now). This comment by an Arab ambassador in Paris summarises, simplistically perhaps, the curious relationship between France and the Middle East since the French Socialists came to power in May 1981.

For the Gulf states, François Mitterrand’s regime was an incarnation of two devils — the communists (who had four ministers in the government of Pierre Mauroy) and the Zionists. “There was a kind of panic in the Arab world”, recalls Jean-Pierre Filliu, who worked as an analyst for the international secretariat of the French Socialist Party.

“So many emissaries were sent to Paris from the Arab capitals that Claude Cheysson, the foreign minister, spoke of a “flight of storks”. Some Arab states — like Qatar — even went as far as withdrawing money deposited in French banks, a move which could  have provoked a financial crisis.

But President Mitterrand reacted quickly and cleverly. On 26 May he sent to Riyadh his brother, General Mitterrand, chairman of the leading French aerospace company SNIAS. On 11 June, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia made an official visit to France, and was given the necessary guarantees — guarantees which were reiterated during Mitterrand’s visit to Riyadh in September.

François Mitterrand had a magic word: “France’s signature is inviolable (sacrée). And the Saudis were touched by the fact that he treated them as world statesmen, speaking of the Russian presence in Afghanistan and of the North-South dialogue. But their discussions were not without ambiguity: when Mitterrand talked of Jerusalem, the Saudis spoke of the “holy places”.

By early 1982, personal contacts and financial and military relations had been restored. But as for the “great Arab issues”, it was more difficult. A turning-point was François Mitterrand’s speech to the Israeli Knesset, in which he delineated what amounted to the French doctrine on the settlement of the Middle East conflict.

Was the Israeli Knesset the best place to do it? In his recently-published book Réflexions sur la politique extérieure de la France (Reflections on French foreign policy), Mitterrand is proud of using “one and the same language” with Arabs and Israelis — and for a while he was able to sell the idea that his good relations with Israel could help the Arabs to reach a settlement.

But, as an Arab ambassador puts it, “While France had been the prime mover in the EEC towards a settlement of the Palestinian problem — France had been behind the Venice declaration (June 1980), which stated that the PLO must be a party to negotiations and reaffirmed the Palestinians’ right to self-determination — it was all over after Mitterrand came to power”.

In a vitriolic book on “Mitterrand’s diplomacy, or the triumph of appearances”, Gabriel Robin, former diplomatic adviser to Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, denounces the “burial” of the Venice declaration. “From now on, French policy is not to have a policy”, writes Gabriel Robin, “and to act in such a way that Europe also has no policy”.

“A European initiative is something serious”, counters a French expert who justifies his government’s diplomacy. “France’s scope for pressure on the US is limited… If a European initiative had been possible, another country would have launched it”. This somewhat isolated supporter of Mitterrand’s diplomacy concludes, “What can Europe do, when the only aim of the Palestinians is to establish a direct dialogue with the Americans”?

In fact it is difficult to characterise the policies of the last five years. If relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the PLO and Iraq have been fairly good, there was a time (1983) when France was almost at war with three Middle East states — with Syria over Lebanon, with Iran over the delivery of Super-Etendards to Iraq, and with Libya over Chad.

In the Maghreb, after a good start with Algeria, with which a natural gas agreement was signed, relations cooled after Presidnt Mitterrand’s meeting with King Hassan of Morocco at Ifrane. The Algerians thought they were being cheated, and that Mitterrand was siding with Morocco over the Western Sahara conflict.

But it is clear that, overall, relations with the Arabs deteriorated again after Laurent Fabius took over from Pierre Mauroy as prime minister (july 1984) and especially after Claude Cheysson left the French foreign ministry in December 1984.

“Cheysson, who lived in Algeria immediately after independence, was fascinated by the Arabs and had a warm comprehension of their problems”, says Jean-Pierre Filliu. When visiting Syria, Cheysson would speak of the occupation of Golan; in Amman, he would raise the question of Jerusalem; without Cheysson, the natural gas deal with Algeria would never have been signed.

It is true, adds Filliu, that Roland Dumas, the new French foreign minister, can be considered as even more pro-Arab. But Dumas scarcely exists: his great talent is to guess the Elysées’ intentions, and to stand aside at the last moment.

Cheysson, in contrast, did not hesitate to threaten to resign if he did not like something. “With the disappearance of this buffer at the Quai d’Orsay (the French foreign ministry) and with the nomination of François Mitterrand’s old friend, Shimon Peres, as Israeli prime minister, the lobbies were free to interfere. France no longer has an Arab policy”, concludes Jean-Pierre Filliu, who explains in a forthcoming book (written with Lebanese journalist Samir Douaihy) that President Mitterrand’s “tainted vision” of the Middle East is due to the fact that until he reached the age of 60, he viewed it only throughh pro-Israeli spectacles.

The left-wing Jean-Pierre Filliu ends up agreeing with the right-wing Gabriel Robin. “Mitterrand’s skill is eyewash… His diplomacy is nothing but the vain  triumph of appearances”, concludes gabriel Robin.

Although Arab ambassadors in Paris declined to be quoted prior to the 16 March elections, they had already taken sides. The Saudis had welcomed Raymond Barre in Riyadh as if he were already prime minister, and the Iraqis had displayed their old friendship for Jacques Chirac. They were a little hasty in the way they resquested delivery of 69 Mirage jets, so that the mild-mannered Roland Dumas had to remind them: “Until 16 March the planes are a matter for us…”

After the ambiguous election result, what now for Mitterrand’s Middle East?

(The Middle East magazine, April 1986)