What still binds France to the “complicated Orient”?

FIGAROVOX/READING – Historian Jean-François Figeac traces the complex relations between France and the Orient from Louis XV to Emmanuel Macron.

Jean-François Figeac teaches contemporary history at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence. He publishes “France and the Orient, from Louis XV to Emmanuel Macron” with Passés Composés.


FIGAROVOX. – From Francis Ium for Jacques Chirac, France is considered to have a privileged relationship with the Arab world. In your book, you try in part to correct this received idea. Does this mean that France dreams of a friendship that never actually existed? To what do you attribute this belief? What is it really?

Jean-Francois FIGEAC. – This belief is due to two hard-to-find myths. The first, forged as part of France’s Arab policy under the VAnd Republic, considering that France has always had a historical role to play in the East since the kings of France. The second is inherited from the work in line with the movement of postcolonial studies advocating a multicultural political agenda: France would have an oriental heritage which should now be assumed. In reality, apart from the exception of Lebanon, with which a special bond was woven in the mid-19thAnd century, France’s friendship with the Arab world remains sporadic according to the times. There has never been a coherence on the matter, but rather the alternation of phases of good understanding and phases of mistrust. For example, a moment of tension during the period of decolonization was followed by a period of rapprochement after General de Gaulle took a pro-Palestinian position after the Six-Day War in 1967. It is certain that these irenic relations are now terminated, both because of the competition that France faces from other powers (United States, Russia, Turkey) in matters of soft powerthan for the rise of radical Islamism which reinforces the incomprehension of the French model of secularism.

In the perspective of the relationship between France and the Orient, should we distinguish the question of the relationship with Islam on the one hand, and with the Orient on the other? Or, conversely, are these two sides of the same coin? What cultural aspect does it imply?

Historically, the relationship with Islam is an important issue of the French presence in the Middle East (through the persistence of the idea of ​​the crusade, especially through the protection of Eastern Christians and the Holy Places), but he is not alone. There are originally other issues, especially commercial ones, linked to what under the Ancient Regime were called the Stairs of the East. French diplomacy could be completely dissociated from the logic linked to what some might be tempted to define as a clash of civilizations in the face of Islam. Thus, during the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856, the French, allied with the British, tried to defend the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph from the threat of the Russian Tsar who made the Christian reconquest of Constantinople an important issue. The tolerance of the Sublime Porte towards Christian minorities had contributed to this rapprochement. However, in the last fifty years, we can witness the emergence of new religious logics. The Lebanese laboratory and the massacres of which Christians were victims in the 1980s constituted a first manifestation of this. The institutionalization of Salafist Islam with Daesh, as well as the clearly hostile diplomacy of some states such as President Erdoğan’s Turkey, has further contributed to the reorientation of Eastern issues around the question of Islam. It is obvious that this trend intersects with internal political issues, with the rise of communitarianism in the peripheries and the tensions around this issue within French public opinion.

As soon as he came to power, Emmanuel Macron tried to contradict his two predecessors who were thought to have broken with the Gaullist tradition.

Jean-Francois Figeac

Your work focuses particularly on the history of French public opinion in relation to the Orient, and your book partly covers this approach. How have the French perceived this “complicated Orient” throughout their history?

The awareness of eastern geopolitical problems and their impact on European balances takes place over the long term. What was called “the Eastern Question” in the 19th century.And century was undeniably a turning point in the matter. It was at this time, in the context of the weakening of the Sublime Porte in the face of double pressure from competing European imperialisms and the movement of nationalities, that a large part of the intellectual elite (publicists, writers, historians, jurists) erected plans for the partition Ottoman Empire among the European Powers. After the fall and decay of this vast territory following the First World War, French society’s vision of the Orient began to narrow to the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, finally to Egypt, before shifting scale again under the impulse by De Gaulle at the beginning of the vAnd Republic. It was then that the Orient was thought of on the scale of the Arab world, up to and including the countries of the Persian Gulf during the last two decades.

What is the influence of culture, literature, the arts and a form of romanticism in this French feeling towards the Orient?

Orientalism, be it literary, pictorial or academic, has greatly contributed to shaping the French public’s representations of the Orient. We are thinking in particular of the reception of the tales of A thousand and one nightstranslated into French from the beginning of the XVIIIAnd century. In the 19thAnd century, the stories of famous travelers such as Chateaubriand, Lamartine or Flaubert allowed the educated public to more accurately imagine the landscapes of the Ottoman Empire. Thus a romanticism developed, clearly visible in the paintings of Delacroix, Ingres and Chassériau. The painting diffused an entire imagination, materialized by spaces such as the harem and the menagerie. To this must be added the curiosity of scholars, especially through Egyptology, thanks to tutelary figures such as Champollion. All this has contributed to the idealization of this region of the world, also on a political level. Thus, the dream of an Arab kingdom allied with France was able to structure part of the collective unconscious up to the First World War, and even beyond.

In light of the history of France, how would you define Emmanuel Macron’s Eastern policy? Is it part of a particular tradition, Gaullist for example? Other ?

As soon as he came to power, Emmanuel Macron tried to contradict his two predecessors who were thought to have broken with the Gaullist tradition. It is certain that various inflections may have taken on a Gaullist accent, such as the desire to approach certain authoritarian political regimes, such as that of President Sissi in Egypt, with the aim of promoting France’s interests as a priority. However, the diplomacy of the President of the Republic remains a diplomacy of blows and opportunities, far from the global vision that de Gaulle and some of his heirs had of the Middle East: there really is no longer an Arab policy of the head of state. Emmanuel Macron’s contribution is to have understood that it was necessary to address the problems of this region with a multilateral method, taking into account all actors, state and civilian. But this approach is no more than that of a secondary power which is no longer capable of independent influence from that of its rivals. More fundamentally, the Quai d’Orsay does not seem to reflect on the new theoretical framework in which French diplomacy is placed after the ideal of the Arab kingdom in the 19th century.And century and that of Arab politics in the twentiethAnd century. As a result, French policy in the Orient is becoming more and more like that of a merchant whose only goal is to sell aircraft.

“France and the Orient”, Jean-François Figeac Past compounds

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