Macron’s rift with diplomats deepens after missteps on Israel-Hamas war

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron notoriously hates diplomats. Now, he needs them more than ever.

Macron is hoping to re-energize his Middle East policy after several rash initiatives failed to gain traction. The French president needs all the help he can get, particularly from his own diplomatic service, to salvage France’s influence in the region but his relationship with French diplomats has been tumultuous and officials regularly complain of being kept out of the loop. Press leaks have featured diplomats hostile to Macron’s approach to the Middle East.

Earlier this month, in an interview with the BBC, Macron called on Israel to halt its retaliatory bombing campaign against Hamas because they were killing “ladies” and “babies.” After an Israeli government backlash, the president was obliged to contact the country’s leaders to clarify his statements.

One French diplomat summarized the French position as “one day pro-Israeli” and “the next [day] pro-Palestinian.”

“Diplomats feel that if they were consulted beforehand, we wouldn’t need to re-balance the French position,” said the diplomat, who like others quoted here was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

The frustration from diplomats has been trained on Macron’s suggestion that the anti-ISIS coalition be retooled to fight Hamas, an idea quickly torpedoed by the international community. According Jean-Loup Samaan, a Middle East researcher with the French Institute for International Relations, Arab nations understood it as a proposal that Western countries join the Israeli military in bombing Hamas, which naturally rang alarm bells.

“France’s diplomatic posture is unclear, and suffers from the same issues as its Ukraine policy: It’s a balancing act, with nuances, that is often misunderstood, and irritates both camps,” Samaan said.

Though fighting will likely continue to rage after a recently agreed to short cease-fire by Israel and Hamas, leaders are turning to the governance of post-conflict Gaza, and how to reinforce the Palestinian Authority. In recent days, Macron has been hitting the phone lines, lining up calls with regional leaders to push for humanitarian aid and a political solution for Palestinians. France wants to play its part in the talks, but will have to erase memories of recent missteps, as well as past mistakes in countries such as Lebanon.

Improvisation at the top

When the president suggested the anti-ISIS coalition should be retooled to fight Hamas during a visit to Israel last month, the initiative took commentators by surprise, but it also took French diplomats unaware, according to several French officials.

In the hours after the announcement, the French presidency issued a clarification, recasting the initiative as merely “inspired” by the anti-ISIS coalition. The coalition idea was later quietly dropped in the face of Israel’s lack of interest in building a security coalition. In the wake of the blunder, Macron announced France was sending a hospital ship to support Gaza’s health services, before it emerged that the boat the French were sending didn’t have enough beds.

French diplomats have also balked at Macron’s stance on Israel’s war against Hamas, which was seen at home as being too pro-Israeli. A leaked internal document from the foreign ministry featured criticism from diplomats, notably for breaking with the country’s long standing policy of cultivating relations in the Arab world.

The document was authored by diplomats belonging to the North Africa and Middle East department and contains criticism on how France’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war is being perceived in the region, two diplomats who had read the document said.

According to a diplomat quoted by the French daily Le Figaro, which first reported the document, the document points to “a loss of credibility and influence for France, and remarks on the degraded image of our country in the Arab world,” and diplomatically points to Macron as responsible for the change.

Many have sought to downplay the document’s impact. “Ambassadors are allowed to criticize. It’s an internal note, written by ambassadors, it’s not a takedown job, and has a lot of nuances,” said France’s former ambassador to Israel Gérald Araud during a parliamentary committee hearing last week.

But such criticism is unusual in France. Foreign policy is seen as the privileged remit of the French president, a reality that was exacerbated under Macron, who is never short of foreign policy ideas. “The diplomatic service is upset by the fact that France’s Near East policy is decided by three people inside the Elysée Palace,” said the same French diplomat quoted above.

This latest incident is set against a backdrop of uneasy relations between Macron and his diplomatic service, with the president preferring more direct diplomatic routes, and at times slamming France’s own “deep state.”

In a written response, an official from the French Presidential Palace said the presidency “need not comment on diplomatic correspondence,” which is “confidential,” while adding that the internal document is “a contribution among many others.”

“In the end, it is the president and his government, the political authorities that were elected by the French, […] who decide on France’s foreign policy,” he added.

A friend of Arab states

In the wake of warning signals from French diplomats, Macron has gradually embraced a more critical stance towards Israel and joined calls for a cease-fire in Gaza.

In addition to his emotional call to end the bombing campaign, the French president organized an international conference on Gaza aid mid-November. Over the weekend, he called the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press him on civilian Palestinian deaths, which are “too high,” according to a French presidency statement.

Macron’s ministers are also clocking up the air miles to explain France’s position, with Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu visiting the region last week, and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on her third trip to the Middle East.

There is hope Macron will be able to leverage his personal relationships in the region, and play a role in diplomatic discussions when Israel ends its military operations in Gaza, said another French diplomat. Macron enjoys “good relationships” with Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman, United Arab Emirats’s Muhammad bin Zayed. “They have known each other for a long time now, they have lived through highs and lows,” he added.

Saudi Arabia is expected to play a key role, even more today than previously, in any effort to resolve the conflict as it was on the cusp of signing up to a U.S.-backed deal to normalize relations with Israel. According to several French officials, Paris is hoping to help countries come together over finding solutions for post-conflict Gaza.

But this is not Macron’s first foray into Middle Eastern politics. In 2020, the president pledged to offer France’s former colony Lebanon a “new political pact” in the wake of a devastating bomb attack which killed more than 200 in Beirut.

“There’s a question of credibility, Macron wasn’t able to achieve anything in Lebanon, which was announced as a top priority three years ago. Nothing happened,” said Samaan, noting that a maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel was resolved by the U.S., not France.