France Trying to Get “Back in the Game”

Editor’s Note:  Taking over the Lebanon desk at MediaShack will be Blackstar, an international lawyer based in London. 

French Prime Minister François Fillon is presently in Lebanon for a two-day visit with a full program of diplomatic activities. While his own office has described_the_trip as one aimed at helping the re-launching of economic life of Lebanon (Fillon is accompanied by fifty French business leaders and will meet with local businessmen), it appears more logical to view it as part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda of re-launching France as a power-broker in the region. Economics aside, Fillon’s visit is important for two things:

I.  He will be signing, on France’s behalf, a military cooperation agreement in virtue of which France will provide training to Lebanon’s army.

This first item is attached to the (attempted) consolidation of France’s political role within Lebanon.  If anything, there seems to be a sense that France should supplant the US as the go-to foreign power when tensions arise locally and an outside arbitrator is sought.   Couple this with Sarkozy’s pro-Mediterranean foreign policy, and France’s historic and cultural links with Lebanon, the political capital invested might actually convert into a much greater influence in Lebanon’s internal matters, and perhaps one less polarizing than that of the US.

Another thing to wonder about regarding this Franco-Lebanese military cooperation agreement is how it will be viewed by the US and, by extension, Israel.   As has been discussed  previously on Media Shack,  the US has provided and has promised to continue providing the Lebanese army with tactical support and equipment.  This support has largely been seen as insufficient to prop up the army enough to drive Hezbollah’s military arm out of business.  The question to ask, therefore, is whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army.   The information available so far is that France is providing “training”.  Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.

II.  What intrigues me more about Fillon’s visit, however, is a snipet  from Naharnet  which basically states that France supports Lebanon holding talks with Israel about the “normalization” of Hezbollah.

My scouring of Middle Eastern and French media headlines could not provide me with any more details on this point.   For one, it seems strange that France tells Lebanon to talk to Israel when the subjects of any negotiations between the two so intimately and directly concern Syria and cannot be settled without Syria’s involvement.  Also, what is meant exactly by  “normalization”? Both in theory and in practice, Hezbollah is “normalized” in Lebanon.  But how can a party within a state be normalized vis-à-vis another state? And what exactly can or should France to do to assist in this?  I think regardless of the angle from which you look at the word, the obvious definition in this context would be the demilitarization of Hezbollah, and perhaps we can accuse the editors at Naharnet of dodgy semantics. There might be more reporting on this tomorrow as Fillon’s trip unfolds. If any readers have found anything else on this subject, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

6 Responses

  1. great first post and thanks for letting us know about this development because i wouldnt have known about it otherwise. I’ve got a couple questions.

    “The information available so far is that France is providing “training”. Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.”

    I wonder if France has something of an advantage because it has less baggage about Israel than the US does. As far as I know, the French Senate isn’t going to be as concerned with what the Lebanese army gets for reasons related to Israel, unlike the American Congress which will always play a major role in limiting what kinds of weapons go to countries neighboring Israel. So it seems that for the Lebanese Army, the French might more attractive as their “trainers” if they can give them the “good stuff” without any controversity in their Congress.

    u bring up a good question here:

    “whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army. The information available so far is that France is providing “training”””

    the US could defintely “impede” the training, but what “conditions” could they impose on French support?

    the second part of your post brings up some good points too but im so tired right now that i must sleep so Ill add some comments tomorow

  2. Re: your first question, yes France absolutely has an advantage over the US. Don’t forget that France’s relations with the Lebanese, or at the very least, with the Maronites, go all the way back to the 19th century. France as a colonial power also used to establish very strong cultural links with its colonies which, contrary to Britain, it generally maintained even after the decolonization process. A banal example is Egypt, where France ruled for only 3 years under Napoleon, but where the cultural links with France are in many ways much stronger currently than they are with Britain.
    I think France’s historical relationship with Lebanon, along with its physical, historical and cultural proximity to the rest of the Arab world, is the reason why the French public also feel an affinity with the Arab world. In this sense, the French government, if it wanted to help an Arab country, would not run into the resistance the US government would face internally if it tried to do the same. Arabs are a much larger minority in France than they are in the US. And while there are major problems of racism and discrimination, that demographic reality can’t be overlooked in the freer rein that Sarkozy et al. enjoy when they come to a decision like helping train the Lebanese military. In the same vein, the pro-Likud lobby is much much more powerful in Washington than it is in Paris. See the Meersheimer and Walt study on the Israeli Lobby which was published to much fanfare and criticism last year.

    Re: your second question. I’m not exactly too sure about what role the US can play in France’s decision to provide training to the Lebanese army. It can certainly exert diplomatic pressure to limit the training offered. If France were to supply the army with weaponry, the US might certainly have a say in what kind of weapons should or should not be supplied. Overally though, I think the more France positions itself as a major power broker in the region, the less leeway the US would have to dictate its terms on how France’s influence should be exerted.
    I wish I could get the text of this military cooperation agreement Fillon will supposedly be signing… I’m on the lookout and will let you know if I do.

  3. If France wasnt such a close ally of the US right now, especially under Sarkozy, I think they could easily go into Lebanon and directly challenge US influence in so many way.

    But the big question for the French is whether arming the Lebanese Army is worth damaging their relationship with the US. I think in the big picture its probably not. On one hand, their companies could benefit from the sales of the most advanced equipment, but on the other hand, are those sales worth damaging US-French relations? On the other hand, if the US really wants to see a strong Lebanese army, then maybe having the French supply the realy big toys is a creative way to get arround opposition from US Congres.

    I guess the answers to these questions depends on whats actually written in the texts. Ill keep my eyes open as well.

  4. “Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.”

    I don’t understand Israel’s fear of the Lebanese army. Should Israel want Lebanon to have a big army to smush Hezbollah? And shouldn’t Israel encourage Lebanon to acquire conventional war technologies, since no country in the region can beat Israel in a conventional war but any yahoo with a rocket can apparently defeat them in a guerrilla war? Seems like Israel’s interest would be in a strong Lebanese state even if it is hostile because that at least provides an enemy Israel can deal with.

  5. I think Israel actually wants a “strong Lebanese army” and I dont think they would deny that on principle.

    But to be truly strong, the Lebanese army probably needs a level of military technology that hasn’t been seen before in Lebanon. Here, I suspect Israeli generals would say something along the lines of “If we could be 100% sure that high-tech weapons would stay in the hands of the Leb Arm we would be ok with that.” Can they be so sure of that? There are undoubtedly Hezbollah sympathizers in the Lebanese Army, so if France or even the US gave the Leb army the really high quality stuff that they want, who is to say that it someone wouldn’t end up in the hands of Israel’s enemies? I think thats Israel’s concern.

    Its a balance between the need for a strong Lebanese Army but a concern over whether giving them the tools they need to be strong would somehow end up in their enemy’s hands.

  6. Adrian,
    Rob pretty much answered your question. Israel’s concern, according to the official line at least, is that military technology would be supplied to a country where Hezbollah is part of the government. Parallel that with the hypothetical of US supplying a Hamas-ruled Gaza with weapons. If I were Israel, I would be concerned about that.

    There might be other reasons for Israel’s obstruction though. It might be worth asking whether it is in Israel’s interests to have a strong Lebanese military which can enforce a Lebanese foreign policy. Especially when there are many unresolved issues between Israel and Lebanon (ie borders, the Shebaa Farms, conflicts about water, etc.).

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