France and the Middle East

French initiatives since 1967 have underscored a general European anxiety over the Middle East. As the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean moves in and out of North African‚ Egyptian, and Syrian ports, and NATO ships maintain their own vigil, alarm bells ring in Paris, Madrid, and Rome. The practical interdependence of the modern Mediterranean world was never more plain. North African cities are an hour and a half from Marseilles and Rome. President Pompidou has said that Libya could become a Mediterranean Cuba.

Gaullism without De Gaulle has meant more concentration on the home front, which, for France, includes open trade routes and communications across the Mediterranean. Every country on its southern shores is important to France. In trade terms, France exported goods valued at about 2 billion francs in 1968 to the Arab states of the Middle East alone. In the same year exports to Israel returned about 490 million francs.

President Pompidou’s government aims to make French industry competitive by means of low-cost energy This means almost complete dependence on Middle East and North African oil.


Cold-war maneuvers between the United States and the Soviets and hot-war clashes along the Suez ceasefire line menace not only France but all of industrial Europe. France was the first, however, to sense the way in which the Arab-Israeli struggle could polarize the major powers. De Gaulle believed that the only available strategy for France was to develop a third-force strategy. If the middle powers in Europe could form such a political force, not taking sides between the blocs, an insulation might be provided. This hope died with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. France, though aloof and detached from NATO, has remained with the West.

In the Mediterranean area France still has unique political assets. It has educated generations of Arab youth all across the southern shore, leaving an indelible impression on the thinking of many who are in power now. Recent difficulties notwithstanding, it has been a firm friend of Israel’s. It has come to terms with nationalism in North Africa. Since the Évian agreements with Algeria in 1962, it has been possible to recast and reorganize relations with the rest of North Africa and the Arab states to the east. And in the cold-war context, it has given them a place to go. They could be nonaligned and still get Western support.

The Fifth Republic has made plain its interest in the fate of the evolving Third World. French overtures were welcome on this basis, particularly among its French-speaking former constituencies. It appeared as the least aggressive of possible Western patrons. It accepted the revolutionary character of the new African states with philosophic detachment. And its proposals for aid and trade were unambiguously based on clear self-interest, which could be understood and respected.

There was realism on both sides as France moved into the Middle East again. In Egypt, old quarrels such as that over Egyptian support of the FLN, and the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Sinai in 1956, were buried. Egypt eventually paid indemnities for French properties sequestered after the Suez affair. By 1963, diplomatic and trade relations were resumed. France had never ceased buying Egyptian cotton, a point which weighed heavily in its favor as relations improved.

By 1968, following Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War, French aid had become even more welcome. Wheat shipments were continued, making up for the deficit caused by U.S. withdrawal of aid. French experts came to help on oil development. France agreed to supply half the cost of setting up a petroleum institute to serve the expanded oil and petrochemical industry as Egyptian oil discoveries increased. Most recently Compagnie de Pont-à-Mousson has taken the lead in organizing a European consortium to build a two-hundred-mile oil pipeline from the Gulf of Suez to Alexandria.

Arab visitors to Paris multiplied in the early sixties. Iraqi, Jordanian, and Syrian officials made pilgrimages which yielded arms, technical assistance, and a kind of clinical sympathy. France made no secret of its continuing close friendship with Israel, and Israel remained its best customer for arms. Nevertheless, France made progress in extending its interests in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, for example, asked help in streamlining its communications. It bought armored cars for its small army and sent students on French scholarships for training in French industrial centers. Meanwhile, French geologists won contracts for aerial surveys of Saudi Arabia. The government oil concern, ERAP-ELF (Entreprise des Recherches et d’Activités Pétrolières), acquired a twothirds interest in an oil-exploration operation in the Red Sea area. By 1969 some thirty-five French enterprises had moved into the Saudi Gulf.

Even so, France’s oil position is still that of an uncomfortable minority shareholder in the international companies which dominate production in the Middle East. For this reason it has been willing to break out of the established pattern of concessions and join national companies as a contracting operator in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Africa.

The same need has led to broadening of investments in other fields. French banks have recently gone into partnership with local investors and set up banks in Kuwait and Dubai. Bank Arabo-Française and Union de Banque Arab Française, two new entities with mixed French and Arab capital, have headquarters in Paris. French engineers are building canal systems for Kuwait, operating a scientific research center in Baghdad, and undertaking agricultural enterprises in Jordan.

The long-standing business connections between France and Lebanon continue. The Israeli retaliation raid on Beirut in December, 1968, set off alarms in Paris which resulted in a drastic French embargo on arms for Israel.

Cherchez le pétrole

Almost total dependence on oil from the Mediterranean basin has driven France toward every possible means of securing diversity of supply. Forty-five percent of its oil comes from the Middle East countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Another 39 percent comes from Algeria and 17 percent from Libya. Remaining fractional amounts come from the Soviet Union, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Gabon. Its own production is only 2.5 million tons a year, whereas its imports add up to 86.3 million tons. So there is no mystery about its preoccupation with the Middle East. At the worst there could be, as there was for a few days in June, 1967, a total stoppage of Arab oil to the West. At best the uncertain political outlook requires a constant search for new supplies.

In 1968 two French oil concerns signed exploration contracts with the Libyan National Oil Company. King Idris let it be known that France was favored because of its “positive attitude” on Arab affairs. Libya’s location west of Suez and closer to Europe than Algeria, the superior quality of its oil, and its low production cost made it all the more attractive (see Douglas Kiker’s report from Libya, the Atlantic, June, 1970). There was the added advantage of having a supplement to Algerian sources. The agreements under which France and Algeria operate together are up for negotiation this year.

Relations between France and Algeria are generally easier now than for some time. There is at the same time a massive Russian presence in Algeria. French teachers have returned to find themselves working along with Russians in French in secondary and technical schools. For the first time since 1962 Algeria has broken the Russian arms monopoly and ordered French planes. So French officers are training Algerians again. The Boumedienne government is intent now on economic reconstruction and is asking French, Italian, and American help and investment.

On the question of Mediterranean policy, Algeria, like France, wants this inland sea free of major power struggles. It is becoming increasingly platonic in its view of the Palestinian Arab effort and is focusing on a Maghreb association with Tunisia and Morocco. If Algerian influence should prevail in Libya, the young leaders there will be drawn into this association. In the much discussed Libyan arms request to France, Algerians seem to have paved the way for initial contacts. It is interesting, however, that President Nasser is also supposed to have urged the Libyans to get French rather than Russian arms.

If the French plane and tank contract with Libya goes through, this will be an indication of policy. France was a natural source to explore, since it is already a Libyan oil partner and customer. But the hasty assumption that the arms supply was aimed at Israel appears in fact to be a distortion which obscures its real meaning. Politically it is a part of France’s action to head off big power rivalry in the Mediterranean. Economically it rescues the French arms industry with its payroll of some 250,000 workers. Strategically it cannot help the Arabs against Israel. It will take the Libyans about four years to learn to operate the French Mirages after they get them (Russian pilots in Egypt can’t be much help in this regard). In addition, some seven hundred maintenance men must be trained.

The public outcry against the Libyan transaction seems in retrospect to be like the emotional reaction that all large arms deals arouse. Yet, as France points out, Washington is still filling orders for planes for Libya, even as it evacuates Wheelus Field. If the French inherit the American or British role in Libya, Washington in this time of trouble can at least hope for a cooling rather than a heating of the Mediterranean political atmosphere.

The economic reality which has compelled France in the last three years to cast its lot with the Arab world has not been faced without a sense of deprivation. So long as Israel’s air force is flying French planes to hit Arab targets, France cannot afford the luxury of close military ties with Tel Aviv. Until 1967 France was Israel’s chief supplier of planes and missiles. Israel was the only foreign country with a mission attached to the French Atomic Energy Commission and to the Ministry of Defense. The pooling of scientific talent between the two made possible some very advanced weapons research and trials in the early sixties. Much of this work was the outgrowth of the Anglo-French-Israeli collaboration against Egypt in 1956 when all three governments, for different reasons, thought to overwhelm the Nasser regime. For the French and Israelis, the habit of working together survived that debacle.

Aside from all this, France has half a million Jewish citizens, many with strong interest in Israel. There is a shared European outlook. But that harmonious spirit is now in question for the first time. The need has arisen during the long Arab-Israeli stalemate, and particularly as a result of the Israeli occupation policies, to examine the previous common assumptions of common interests.

French writers have been too much involved in this questioning to turn out the usual quickie nonbooks about the Six-Day War and its aftermath. Les Temps Modernes produced a special issue in 1967 examining the whole question of Israel’s position at that time. Georges Friedmann asks in Fin du Peuple Juif? whether Frenchmen of his background must choose between the mystique of Zionism and the realities of Israeli nationalism and assimilation.

Maxime Rodinson writes of the resolution of the Jewish-Arab problem through a binational state, a distant, but to him inevitable, solution. Jean Lacouture foresees an eventual balance between Zionist and Arab claims in a pair of states such as India and Pakistan. On the far left sympathizers with the Palestinian guerrillas consign Israel to oblivion. More thoughtful writers, many of them Jewish by background if not by faith, analyze the dilemma which Zionism presents to liberal Europeans.

French policy on the Arab-Israel issue has been designed to prevent polarization between East and West, and, where possible, to introduce third-power initiatives. De Gaulle called for four-power talks in May, 1967, hoping that they might have some sort of moderating effect. On June 3 of that year he issued a communiqué laying down French policy. It stated that France had no binding ties with any Middle East country; that every state there had a right to exist; that the first to shoot would forfeit French support; that passage rights at the Strait of Tiran should be solved along with a general settlement, including that of refugees. The government called its position one of “active neutralism.”

Up to this time France had sold Israel arms at the rate of $60 million a year. French aircraft, helicopters, and rockets made Israel’s quick victory possible. To this day they are vital elements along with the fartherranging American Phantoms. But as the encounter became more inevitable, France warned Israel on June 3 that it would embargo arms to Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, On June 5, the day of the actual air attack, the embargo was officially announced. During the long stalemate it has been eased for spare parts for Israel and for noncombatants like Lebanon. The turning point in French policy came with Israel’s raid on the Beirut airport in December, 1968, after which the embargo became complete.

In the political effort to reduce the crisis atmosphere and work toward a general settlement France has continued to play an active and imaginative role. It has remained on good if not intimate terms with Israel. Most recently it has helped Israel receive preferential status in the Common Market.

France’s belief in the need for four-power consultation was persuasive with President Nixon when he visited Paris in February, 1969. For the last year and a half these meetings have been held at UN missions —with results still to be revealed.

French ideas of terms for settlement have been outlined, most recently by Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann in April. He listed two points on which he said there was general agreement among the four: one, that conquest does not confer rights, and that conquered territory must therefore be evacuated; two, that all evacuation should be supported by a set of guarantees of security for all countries in the region and in particular for Israel. France suggested a two-stage withdrawal plan tied to a two-stage demonstration of good faith on the Arab side.

The remaining French proposals are for security zones where UN forces responsible only to the Security Council would be installed on a permanent basis. Finally, on the Palestinian claims, France assumes those displaced in 1967 will return to their homes. For the 1948 refugees there would be the “choice” between return or compensation, which has remained embedded in long-standing UN resolutions. The practical procedures for carrying out these moves would be the responsibility of the UN Security Council after consultation with the refugees and all governments concerned.

La France parle

In the April statement Mr. Schumann offered an explanation for Israeli rejection of the whole fourpower effort, and Israel’s fundamental disagreement with France. He described what he called the key to the mystery of this opposition: “I believe that Israel has still not decided on an approach to the basic problem with which it is confronted by the occupation of territory inhabited by a million Arabs . . . the goal of a four-power concertation is evacuation under conditions such as to provide guarantees for security and peace.”

Mr. Schumann stressed that the points of agreement to this end which he had listed had been found close to the ideas of the United States and the Soviet Union and acceptable to Egypt and Jordan. He asked how Israel could expect to find security even within its presently held territories in the era of supersonic air planes and missiles. As a way of in sulating Israel during what he assumes to be a long period of mutual adjustment to peace, he cites the utility of past United Nations forces along the Gaza Strip and IsraeliEgyptian frontier for ten years. In urging this procedure Mr. Schumann repeated the idea that Israel requires borders of security which its present borders of conquest have failed to provide.

From all of this the role of France in the search for settlement is obvious. It speaks for Europe as far as the rest of Western Europe expresses itself. In the absence of a unified European voice there have been assenting gestures from Chancellor Willy Brandt. Spain, which has taken an all-out pro-Arab position, cannot help in peacemaking. Nor can Greece in its present isolation from Western Europe. Italy’s internal problems deprive it of a strong voice in Mediterranean affairs. Each of these shares a common apprehension. But for the moment France can best speak for them.