President Chirac's departure has "orphaned" most of his Arab counterparts, after several decades of personal relations. The Arabs are well aware that their relations will be different with Nicolas Sarkozy, who is admired for his energy as much as he is feared for his open closeness to Israel. Not that the Arab leaders are systematically hostile to the Jewish state - some of them maintain relations with Tel Aviv and they have all just resumed a peace initiative at the Riyadh summit - but because Sarkozy has just buried "France's Arab policy" by launching a plan for a Mediterranean Union. And the latter elicits reservations.
The aim is to create a "bridge between Europe and Africa," according to the president. Therefore this Union would involve only the southern European countries and the Arabs of the Mediterranean, in practice excluding those of the Gulf. It would Grant Turkey a choice position, short of European membership. Last, instead of resolving interstate conflicts in advance in order to establish fruitful cooperation, it apparently seeks to resolve them by "drowning" them in the Mediterranean. This seems a difficult task, since there are so many conflicts - Turkish-Cypriot, Lebanese-Syrian, Israeli-Arab, Algerian-Moroccan... not forgetting the nature of some regimes, which see such a project as a threat to their survival.
Is the Mediterranean Union the right thing in this situation? We can be sure that the upheavals in the Arab-Islamic world will keep the president busy throughout his five-year term. France, a Mediterranean nuclear power and a permanent member of the Security Council, maintains intensive relations with the Arab and Islamic world. However the strategic situation has altered profoundly and Sarkozy will have to take account of the radical changes that have marked this region. He will be forced as soon as possible to review France's Arab policy, which was conceived as a necessity of reconciliation following the Suez crisis (1956,) the decolonization of Algeria (1962,) and France's energy dependence on the Arab countries following the oil crisis of 1973. What is the situation now ?
Its nuclear power plants have made France the Western country least dependent on fossil fuels. But this highly strategic energy is the target of terrorist threats. The Palestinian cause has changed. The Arabs' "existential" preoccupation is now to oppose Iranian nuclear and to contain its "Shi'i crescent." The building of a Palestinian state is irreversible and awaits only Washington's awakening to force Israel to recognize it within international borders. Arabism, in total decline, is being lifted up again by a warlike Islamism. Islamist terrorism is now asserting itself as a crucial factor in international relations. The Sunni-Shi'i conflict is already turning Iraq into an open-air slaughterhouse, and threatens to spill into the neighbouring countries. The incursion by Iran and Turkey into the Arab area, alongside Israel, undermines the role performed by the Arab regimes, which now exercise less and less influence on the region's strategic determinants and makes a comprehensive Arab policy unviable.
The Arabs' loss of influence is combined with the confiscation of liberties by authoritarian regimes that reject rotation through the ballot box. Most of the Arab republics are tending to establish hereditary dictatorships, gripping their countries and institutions in a vise. These practices make the peoples easy prey for Islamist recruiters, who can easily condemn corruption and promise a "pure" state. Conversely, the Islamist advance provides these governments with a pretext for deferring indispensable reforms.
So what should the priorities of "France's Islamic policy" be? The establishment of a viable Palestinian state must be vigorously advocated. This is a pressing necessity, because the rift between the Islamic world and the West is nurtured by a conflict that is being constantly exacerbated to the extent of undermining international relations. Israel must be able to guarantee its security by means of a NATO deployment along its borders and a Palestinian state that will grant limitations on its weaponry.
The Lebanese are relying on the French president to support them in regaining their sovereignty. Lebanon's existence is threatened more by a Syria that still refuses to recognize it than by Israel, which says it is willing to open an embassy there. This is why Sarkozy will have two extend the diplomatic swing taken by Chirac in 2004, which resulted in the Security Council's adoption of several resolutions designed to restore Lebanon's integrity and to judge the assassins.
Among the regions structural tasks, France must encourage the Arab reformist tendency and support civil society, women, and the champions of freedom and political rotation. This, because the status quo favours the most obscurantist components of the Islamist tide, which seek only to achieve a "clash of civilizations."