Looks like France is finally sending troops to the Gulf, just not in the way you might have expected. Currently on a tour of the Middle East, President Nicolas Sarkozy has signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates to establish the first French military base in the region – indeed, the only foreign military base in Arabia that does not belong to the US.
At first sight this seems like an odd move, particularly to Americans (and Brits) weaned on sniggering tales of French military disaster and tanks with one forward and five reverse gears, and who still chuckle at the timeless simile that going to war without France is “like going duck hunting without your accordion”. What on earth has possessed the new French President to go committing troops to the Persian Gulf at a time when tensions in the region are rising? Doesn’t he realize that they might actually one day have to, y’know, fight?
As ever in these cases, there is more to this announcement than meets the eye. It needs to be seen in the context of two considerations; France’s economic interests in the region – which are significant – and France’s view of its place in the world, which may appear a comical one to many observers but which the French themselves take deadly seriously.
France has always sold weapons to Gulf states, as have Britain, America and others. But her economic interests in the area go much further. Despite the justifiable scepticism about Iran’s motivation for pursuing its nuclear program, the truth is that the Iranian interest in smashing atoms together is mirrored in many Arab states, too. As well as the agreement to base French troops there, the UAE have also agreed to cooperate on nuclear power, as have Algeria and Libya too. Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also expressed an interest in taking their relationship with France to the nuclear level.
The burgeoning infrastructure of the oil states needs energy to sustain it, too; over a quarter of the Gulf States’ oil production is consumed domestically rather than exported. Every barrel of oil that goes towards lighting the streets of Dubai is $100 that could be flowing into the UAE’s coffers instead. At over two million barrels a day… well, you do the math. Any energy source that frees up production for the export market is to be welcomed, and very few countries have the expertise to build and maintain nuclear plants. France is one of these, and it’s taking full advantage.
However, beyond the allure of the Emir’s cash, as welcome as it is, there’s a wider consideration at work. France still sees itself very much as a global power, and while sending 500 troops to catch some rays in a peaceful Arab state may seem like small beer to American eyes, the symbolism of the move is potent nonetheless.
Britain was bankrupted by World War Two, and an exhausted nation lost its overseas possessions quickly thereafter – with the US as enthusiastic facilitator – in mostly peaceful fashion (at least, that is, peaceful for us). France’s agony during the war was much worse, and the retreat from empire more traumatic – the horrors of Algeria and Indochina foremost among them. But where Britain has for the most part, and with the odd exception, been slightly embarrassed to meddle in its old colonies – the British Commonwealth being seen as a somewhat anachronistic institution that requires constantly to be justified and defended, and even countries like Pakistan and Zimbabwe getting the velvet glove rather more often than the mailed fist – France has often been more proactive, particularly in Africa, where its influence in many Francophone countries remains remarkably strong. In the Gulf, from which Britain retreated soon after the debacle of Suez, France sniffs an opportunity, and the new man is well placed to exploit it.
Sarko’s accession to the presidency was widely seen as a good thing by British and American diplomats; a refreshing change from the posturing of Jacques Chirac, who made no secret of his Gallic disdain for all things Anglophone, and who touted the risible idea of the European Union as a counterweight to US hegemony not just economically but militarily, too. Broadly speaking, that’s still true; Sarkozy is certainly more instinctively Atlanticist than his predecessor. But French pride will never permit them to play too obvious a second fiddle to the top dogs. America may be the big swinging dicks these days, in the Middle East as everywhere else, but that’s never going to stop a Frenchman from poking his in wherever he sees a fragrant opening.
The French military may be the butt of a thousand chortling American jokes (and believe me, we Brits share them), but the truth is that France has a proud military history that compares very favourably with any other nation. A quick look at the map of the Paris Metro, and its evocative station names like Austerlitz and Solferino, should suffice to remind the casual observer of the continuing resonance of French battles of yesteryear. Never forget that France lost over a million and a half soldiers in battle in the two World Wars – more than any other Allied nation except Russia, and three times as many as America. These are proud people, but their pride is justified.
It’s hard to imagine Britain, say, opening a military base in the Middle East any time soon; what, public opinion would grumble, would be the point? But for the French, it’s a small but telling proof of what they have long known; never mind the jibes and the Freedom fries, France never went away; she deserves her place at the top table in world diplomacy, and don’t you forget it.
Am I investing a minor defence deal with too much symbolism? Perhaps. But watch the Bastille Day celebrations in July, and you’ll see; the French do symbolism better than anyone else in the world.
Mr Eugenides is not, despite the pseudonym, Greek, but a native of Glasgow, Scotland. The focus of his blog is mostly on UK politics, the targets normally leftwing politicians and journalists.