France has had a complex relationship with the Islamic world for centuries, as both an imperial power and home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority population. French foreign policy towards Islamic countries has been shaped by a variety of factors, both domestic and international. This article will examine the key determinants of French foreign policy towards the Islamic world in the decade after 2010.
The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France in 2007 marked a shift towards a more assertive foreign policy that was often critical of political Islam. However, the priorities and approach of French foreign policy have continued to evolve under subsequent Presidents Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Key factors shaping French policy in recent years include counterterrorism concerns, immigration and integration issues, economic interests, the European context, and France’s colonial legacy.
Counterterrorism and Security
Countering Islamic extremism and terrorism has been a major priority driving French foreign policy towards the Muslim world after 2010. France has been the target of numerous jihadist terrorist attacks during this period, beginning with the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012 and culminating with the massive November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. These attacks have shaped French threat perceptions and policy responses.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from 2014 onwards posed a particular counterterrorism challenge. France joined the U.S.-led international coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria through airstrikes and training local forces. At home, French security services stepped up surveillance and counter-radicalization efforts in Muslim communities. Reducing terrorist threats emanating from the Middle East, the Sahel region of Africa, and other conflict zones with a jihadist presence has been an overriding security concern.
France takes a hardline stance against Islamist political groups across the region that it perceives as threatening its counterterrorism objectives and national interests. For example, France backed General Khalifa Haftar against Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord from 2016-2020 during that country’s civil war. Haftar was seen as a bulwark against Islamist militias such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This risked greater long-term instability, but was seen as meeting short-term security needs.
Immigration and Integration
Domestic debates over immigration and integration of France’s Muslim population are a significant factor influencing foreign policy towards the Islamic world. With Europe’s largest Muslim minority population at around 5 million, issues like the full face veil (niqab) ban imposed in 2010 or restriction of foreign imam training in 2016 have foreign policy implications. The French government has justified such measures to counter extremism and protect secular values.
Terrorist attacks have fueled anti-immigration sentiment and suspicion of Muslims, despite government appeals for unity and nondiscrimination. This has increased pressure for immigration restrictions and assimilationist policies. The resurgence of the far-right National Front/Rally under Marine Le Pen, finishing runner-up in the 2017 presidential election, also pushed mainstream parties to take a harder line on immigration and adopt positions long advocated by the far-right.
Debates over French identity and place of Islam influence foreign policies like limiting visas for imams from countries like Turkey, Morocco, or Algeria. The domestic context shapes not just Muslim integration within France, but also engagement with Islamic countries abroad.
Economic interests are a consistent driver of French foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. With relatively low growth and high unemployment during much of this period, expanding trade relations has been a priority. France looks to leverage its status as former colonial power in the region to win contracts and investments. This shapes relations with major economic partners.
For example, France has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies despite human rights concerns. Saudi Arabia is a major market for French arms sales, with over $18 billion in weapons contracts from 2010-2020. Qatar is also a key economic partner where France has developed financial and commercial interests in areas like sports and luxury goods. Protecting access to oil, gas, and public infrastructure contracts motivates engagement even with authoritarian regimes.
In North Africa, France looks to Maghreb countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia as key economic partners, both for investment opportunities and as destinations for French exports. Over four million French citizens have Maghreb origins, facilitating business dealings. Although colonial memories complicate relations, France aims to leverage linguistic, educational, and legal ties for economic advantage. 
As part of the European Union, France’s policies are shaped by the EU framework for engaging partner countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Areas like trade, counterterrorism, and migration require coordinating French national policies with collective European approaches.
France has diverged at times from European partners on issues like the Iran nuclear deal or relations with authoritarian regimes. But in general, France favors a stronger, more cohesive EU foreign policy to project European power and interests abroad. French leaders push for an independent Europe that can provide an alternative to Chinese and Russian influence in areas like the Mediterranean.
Within Europe, France balances a traditional British alignment with the United States with a more autonomous European voice advocated by Germany. This shapes nuanced policies navigating between EU consensus and French independence on issues like sanctions on Russia or defense integration. The European context limits unilateralism and requires coordination, even where France retains national priorities.
France’s colonial legacy in the Middle East and North Africa lasting into the 1960s continues to impact foreign policy towards Islamic countries. Countries like Algeria and Tunisia were directly colonized by France, while others like Lebanon and Syria fell under French spheres of influence. The memory of the Algerian war of independence shapes strained relations between Paris and Algiers.
Linguistic, educational, and legal structures established during colonial rule form the basis for continued French influence. France presents cultural exchanges and development aid as benevolent, but critics see neocolonial efforts to maintain dominance and privilege French businesses. Migration flows from former colonies have also created large diasporas seeking to shape policy.
This colonial history facilitates French engagement across the region. Local elites maintain lingual and cultural ties to France that provide access for French companies and diplomats. Yet post-colonial tensions also provoke resentment of French policies seen as patronizing or exploitative. Managing this complex colonial legacy remains an ongoing challenge.
Policy Under Sarkozy (2007-2012)
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rapprochement with the United States early in his tenure aligned France more explicitly with the War on Terror. Sarkozy reintegrated France into NATO’s military command and adopted a more confrontational approach towards Iran over its nuclear program. Domestically, Sarkozy imposed the full face veil ban and created a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, reflecting a more conservative stance.
Sarkozy took an assertive approach to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, including military intervention in Libya. But his government was seen as inconsistent, backing revolution in Libya while remaining silent on repression in Bahrain. Wary of Islamist movements, Sarkozy called for slowing immigration and tightening border controls after the Tunisian revolution.
In the Mediterranean and Middle East, Sarkozy emphasized counterterrorism cooperation, support for Lebanon’s pro-Western government, and containing Syrian influence. Expanding economic relations with Gulf Arab states was also a priority, despite concerns over democratic backsliding. Sarkozy adopted a largely security-focused and stability-oriented regional policy.
Hollande Presidency (2012-2017)
The Socialist Francois Hollande promised a more balanced approach focused on development and diplomacy when elected in 2012. Hollande normalized relations with Tunisia and Morocco after Sarkozy’s hardline stance. He also adopted a more dovish policy towards Iran, supporting negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal.
However, the Paris terrorist attacks shifted Hollande’s foreign policy priorities. France expanded airstrikes against ISIS, declared a state of emergency, and increased funding for domestic security forces. The attacks exacerbated anti-immigrant attitudes that Hollande felt pressured to acknowledge through tighter asylum rules.
In Africa, Hollande intervened against jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahel alongside regional governments. At home, measures like banning foreign imam training were justified on counterterrorism and integrating Muslims into French secular values. Despite initial moderation, counterterrorism concerns dominated Hollande’s Middle East policies after 2015.
Macron Presidency (2017-)
President Emmanuel Macron has continued an assertive foreign policy, at times charting a middle path between inaction and direct military intervention. He has cooperated with the U.S. on limited airstrikes in Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks. But Macron opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, seeking continued engagement.
On North Africa, Macron has criticized human rights abuses in Egypt while trying to maintain security cooperation. He adopted a similar approach in Libya, pressing for ceasefires and elections without directly engaging in the civil war. Macron also seeks deeper economic ties with the Gulf states, despite criticisms over Yemen and jailed activists.
Macron has pressed for reforming Islam in France by restricting foreign imam training and financing for mosques. He claims these moves target radicalization, but critics argue they may marginalize Muslims. Domestically, Macron also adopted tougher stances on immigration under pressure from right-wing opponents.
Overall, Macron has aimed for balance between security objectives and wider political and economic engagement across the Islamic world. But direct action often loses out to more cautious policies that favor short-term stability.
French foreign policy towards the Islamic world continues to balance complex political, economic, and social priorities both internationally and domestically. Ongoing challenges include reducing terrorist threats that fuel anti-Muslim attitudes, developing economic relations without ceding too much leverage to authoritarian regimes, and managing integration of immigrants and minority populations within France.
Issues like the civil war in Syria, turmoil in Libya, Saudi human rights abuses, and political Islam continue posing challenges with no easy solutions. Meanwhile, economic stagnation risks fueling further xenophobia and reactionary policies that undermine unity and equal citizenship.
Constructively engaging the diversity of the Islamic world while defending French values and interests requires nuanced policies that resist either demonization or complacency. As its Muslim population grows and the Middle East and North Africa undergo continued change, France will need adaptable foreign policies that bridge divides both within Europe and across the Mediterranean.
This examination of French foreign policy since 2010 highlights the complex array of factors shaping engagement with Islamic countries. Domestic debates over immigration and terrorism have increased pressures for more restrictive policies. Ongoing instability in the Middle East and Africa raises new security challenges even as economic ties expand. And France’s colonial legacy continues influencing relations marked by both opportunity and mistrust.
Balancing these priorities within a European framework leads to policies that often appear inconsistent or contradictory. But the guiding principles have consistently been advancing French economic and political interests while combating perceived extremist threats. As France moves forward, evolving these policies to be more constructive and less reactionary will require grappling with difficult issues of identity, integration, and international security.
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