On His Way to Asia, Hollande Makes Two Stops in the Middle East

François Hollande in January 2012.
Photo: Flickr.com/jmayrault

French President François Hollande visited Beirut, Lebanon and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on his way to an Asia-Europe summit in Laos in light of last week’s eurozone economic crisis.  His decision to stop in Beirut came last minute when Wissam al-Hassan was assassinated by a bombing, an intelligence chief of police who was awarded just last month by the Lebanese opposition to services in Damascus.  The bombing occurred soon after the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najob Mikati, who was accused of complying with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The assassination came as a shock, and poplar opinion blamed it on Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

Hollande explained that his visit is a “political gesture of backing for Lebanon’s sovereignty and the preservation of its integrity” when fears that the crisis in Syria was spilling over the border to Lebanon threatened destabilization. Hollande went on to say that “the Lebanese demand and the whole world demands” to know the whole truth about the bombings, and pledged that France would help all it could to collect as much information as possible.  France and the West insist that Lebanon must not be a victim of the Syrian crisis.

The President reiterated France’s support, saying that they would provide military, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Lebanon for accepting over 100,000 Syrian refugees into their territory.  Lebanese President Michel Sleiman welcomed support adding that today, France “has an important role to play in supporting Lebanese politics and Lebanese institutions.”  Having once controlled Lebanon as their colony, France is extending its assistance and influence in an attempt to become an important player in the Middle East.  The Elysée said, “We are the most active country on issues concerning Syria, Lebanon, and the peace process.” Some argue that France is looking for lucrative business ties in the region.

Hollande’s next visit brought him to Saudi Arabia for a first-time meeting with King Abdullah to continue discussion about the Middle East peace process, Iran’s controversial nuclear program, and new developments in energy. The President expressed his support for a Syrian opposition government that can be given legitimacy and ensure a democratic transition.  Hollande stated that military aid to Syrian rebels would only be provided when “a temporary government is formed.”  This comes after France was accused of “schizophrenia” towards the Syrian government, who said that France gave aid to armed rebels while simultaneously pledging that it was promoting a peaceful resolution.

Saudi King Abdullah and President Hollande found that they have similiar positions on Iran, claiming that its nuclear ambitions are threatening to the region and the world.  Both leaders agreed on toughening sanctions on Iran and moving forward with negotiations to resolve the matter.

Hollande made it clear when speaking to reporters that his visit was “above all political.” After a chilled relationship between France and Saudi Arabia under previous president Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande has goals of strengthening the two countries’ relationship, establishing a personal relationship with King Abdullah.

Their discussion turned to energy and the future of nuclear energy.  Hollande stated that he is in favor of Saudi Arabia’s attitude in increasing OPEC production quotas in order to keep oil prices under control.  The country is France’s largest oil provider and according to Hollande, “France’s first trading partner.”  King Abdullah mentioned that Saudi Arabia has plans to install sixteen new projects in nuclear energy.  Hollande said that he hopes French companies can be represented in this enterprise.

This was a busy couple of days for President Hollande, who traveled on to Laos to discuss Asian markets in light of the eurozone crisis. Some of Hollande’s critics said that his important stops in the region were rushed.  However, the leader has made it clear that he intends France to be an important influence in the Middle East.  He recently said upon his congratulations of U.S. President Obama’s reelection that US-French relations will focus on finding peace in the region, saying that “this is a crucial moment, not only for the United States but the whole world.”

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