When two French journalists were abducted in Iraq by a shadowy Islamist group on Aug. 20, France's initial reaction was consternation. How could this have happened to a country that did so much to oppose U.S.-led war plans in Iraq -- and has espoused so many Arab causes? But then France swung impressively into action, calling in its Middle Eastern chips. Almost immediately, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi -- and even radical movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad -- were all appealing for the hostages' release. It was a vivid reminder of the time and effort France has put into constructing a web of relations across the Mideast. "You didn't see that kind of support for Blair or Berlusconi," notes François Heisbourg, director of Paris-based think tank Foundation for Strategic Research, referring to the hostage crises faced by both leaders.
But France's political capital in the Middle East may be more rhetorical than real. For all their influence, the French failed to secure the swift release of the journalists. The Gaullist notions of enjoying the support of the "Arab street" are also looking exaggerated: "Many in the Middle East see a double standard, contrasting France's almost lyrical expressions of support for Arab causes with domestic policies viewed as anti-Arab and anti-Islamic, even racist," notes Algerian economist Amr Elmuntasser. French politicians and some of the country's estimated 5 million Muslims have clashed publicly, most recently over new legislation barring female students at French public schools from wearing headscarves. The Iraqi kidnappers made removal of the ban a condition for the release of the hostages.
Just as important, the rush of diplomatic activity cannot hide the fact that around the southern rim of the Mediterranean, French power and prestige have suffered a number of reversals. Morocco recently signed a groundbreaking Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. -- something it has yet to do with the European Union, despite French lobbying. France was also kept in the dark late last year when Libya cut a deal with the U.S. and Britain to mothball its nuclear weapons program.
France still has commercial strengths in the region, which last year purchased $18 billion in French goods. Around one-quarter of the foreign trade of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia is still conducted with France. But even here it is beginning to slip. In Algeria, where French companies discovered oil and gas in the late 1950s, Britain's BP PLC is now the leading investor. Similarly, Italians have edged out the French in the energy industries of Egypt and Libya. What's more, France's traditional focus on exporting to "captive" Middle Eastern and African markets has caused it to miss out on much of the Asian boom.
French commercial ties with Iran underscore the fact that business does not necessarily translate into political influence. French exports to Iran nearly doubled in the five years to 2003. Carmaker Renault will be plowing $360 million into a car plant there, while energy giant Total is betting big on oil and gas stakes. Yet all this investment hasn't stopped Iran from snubbing French diplomatic appeals to halt its nuclear program.
France's well-publicized efforts to rally the support of Muslim groups in France and the Middle East to free the journalists could also backfire. In early September, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier criss-crossed the Middle East to meet with Muslim leaders, including Qatar-based Islamic televangelist Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, whose jeremiads against "infidels" and approval of suicide bombers have triggered harsh criticism from Muslim moderates. France also has enlisted the support of Iraqi groups opposed to the U.S.-backed regime. Bertrand Badie, a specialist on international relations at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, thinks Paris is trying to capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. "This is legitimizing nonstate actors and officially associating them in diplomatic activity," says Badie. "It's a risk." These tactics might eventually help secure the release of the hostages. Will they be a winning policy for the long-term? Evidence suggests not.
By John Rossant