France’s Strategic Shift in the Middle East: Navigating Ties with Iraq Post-Coalition Withdrawal

France’s New Approach

As its political and military influence wanes in Africa, France seeks to bolster its presence in the Middle East, specifically Iraq. While Iraqi Prime Minister Muhamad Shia Al-Sudani called for the international coalition, led by the United States, to schedule its withdrawal, Paris is exploring avenues to strengthen its ties with Baghdad.
France aims to avoid the mistakes it made in Africa, where it intervened significantly in the political and economic affairs of those countries without fostering genuine partnership built on balance and equality.
Observing French President Emmanuel Macron’s actions in the Middle East, particularly his handling of the Gaza conflict, reveals a distinct shift in approach from the Biden administration.
On October 7th, Macron voiced support for Israel’s right to self-defense during his visit to Tel Aviv and called for an international alliance to combat Hamas. However, he later advocated for a humanitarian ceasefire, emphasizing that the blockade and indiscriminate shelling, coupled with a ground operation, would not protect civilians.
This change in the French stance is attributed to reactions from several regional countries that perceived a clear bias toward Tel Aviv. Consequently, Iraq postponed the third Baghdad Conference, initially set for November 30th of the previous year, where Paris successfully convened regional players like Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Gulf Arab states, Iran, and Turkey to revitalize Iraq’s economy.
The conference remains indefinitely postponed by Iraq. President Macron, in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhamad Shia Al-Sudani, sought to explain France’s position, pledging no double standards, and affirming Paris’s support for the Palestinians’ right to establish their state.

Strengthening French Partnership with Iraq

President Macron seeks a balanced approach in French Middle East policy, especially amid France’s reduced role in the region. To achieve this, France leverages its political, military, and economic tools, coupled with its cultural and societal influence in Arab communities.
Recent developments position Iraq as a significant gateway for France to re-enter the Middle East and solidify its waning influence. In 2023, several mutual visits resulted in crucial agreements, starting with a strategic accord enhancing cooperation in security, energy, anti-corruption, and culture.
Regarding security, President Macron expressed France’s support for Iraq in combating the terrorist organization “ISIS,” offering advanced air defense systems. Approximately 600 French soldiers train Iraqi forces, providing counter-terrorism consultations. France is willing to establish desert forces in Iraq, drawing from its experience in Africa.
In the energy sector, the French company Total Energies, in collaboration with Qatar Energy, secured a $27 billion, 25-year agreement with Iraq. This deal aims to develop the oil industry, harness associated gas for electricity generation, and advance renewable energy. Total Energies holds a 45% share, while Qatar Energy and Iraq have 25% and 30%, respectively.
This French investment contrasts with reduced commitments from American and European companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP in Iraq, signaling France’s intent to bolster its influence in the region.
Within the strategic partnership agreement, Iraq and France signed a memorandum of understanding to exchange anti-corruption expertise, including information sharing, training, and investigation to curb corruption’s proliferation.
The Franco-Iraqi convergence extends beyond security and economic aspects into culture. Iraq assumed the management of the Arab World Institute in Paris, marking the first time in four decades that Iraq holds this position. The French embassy in Baghdad actively supported Iraq’s nomination, highlighting a new form of bilateral relations.
To enhance collaborative efforts in education and scientific research, the Iraqi Ministry of Education and Scientific Research signed an agreement with the French government to develop the academic environment in fields such as environment, sciences, archaeology, heritage, and the French language.

Struggle for Interests

The United States, Iran, and Turkey closely monitor France’s attempts to establish a foothold in Iraq. Washington, having played a significant role in Iraq’s post-2003 political landscape, resists Paris filling its void upon the international coalition’s departure.
The competitive gaze on French companies intensifies, especially after President Macron criticized the aggressive economic measures taken by President Biden’s administration, terming it a dangerous move that threatens Western unity.
Clear disputes between France and the United States, both in military influence and economics, turn Iraq into a new battleground between the two. Iran, highly vested in Iraq’s markets, perceives it as a crucial strategic arena for securing protection or funding its economy through Iraq’s substantial market.
Iran is unlikely to welcome French economic influence in Iraq, particularly in the energy sector. Total Energies proposed associated gas investment could diminish Iraq’s reliance on gas imported from Iran, enhancing Iraq’s energy independence and aligning with Macron’s vision for Iraq to break free from external dictates.
Turkey, too, cautiously observes France’s efforts to enhance relations with Iraq, aspiring to become one of Iraq’s major trade partners and engage in vital infrastructure projects initiated by the Iraqi government.
Concerns rise in Turkey due to France’s closer ties with Erbil and the perception that it strengthens Kurdish influence in the region.
Turkey aims to leverage Kurdistan’s natural resources, including gas and oil, to become a significant gas hub in the region. Consequently, it engages in a substantial political dispute with France over gas issues with Greece.
Turkey fears that the entry of French energy companies into Iraq’s oil and gas sector could pave the way for larger projects, potentially depriving Ankara of significant interests in the Iraqi market.

Need for More French Investments

Considering the trade volume between Iraq and Iran, Turkey, and France, the balance of power favors Tehran and Ankara. Iraq’s trade with Iran reached $20 billion last year, while its trade with Turkey exceeded $15 billion. In contrast, Iraq’s trade with France barely surpasses $2 billion, highlighting a significant disparity in trade relations.
Therefore, France must exert extra effort to increase its investments in Iraq and develop a balanced policy in dealing with all parties based on partnership and collaborative efforts without provoking Washington, Tehran, or Ankara.
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