France and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement Tuesday calling for a future Iranian nuclear deal to be "verifiable" and "not a threat to the region." The statement followed French President Francois Hollande's visit to Riyadh, during which he met with Saudi King Salman at the monarch's private residence for more than an hour. The trip was designed in part to relay Paris' commitment to the Gulf monarchies' security and stability.
The visit emphasizes the strengthening ties between France and the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly Riyadh. French involvement in the Middle East has grown in recent years, evidenced by France's participation in the coalition against former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and its contribution to coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Paris, not Washington, has emerged as the Western power whose concerns in the region have overlapped the most with Gulf Arab leaders, especially in the wake of 2011's Arab Spring. France is not about to supplant the United States as the ultimate guarantor of stability and security in the Gulf; Paris lacks the interest and capabilities to become the primary external military power in the region. But the need for capable partners is bringing France and Saudi Arabia together, and insecurities over threats emanating from a region so close to home are shaping French action in the Middle East.
France's roots in the Middle East extend for more than a millennium. Troops and military leaders from France formed a key component of Christian forces in the early Crusades. A French nobleman, Godfrey of Bouillon, was the founding ruler of the geopolitically fraught Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. A series of wars, trading relationships and shifting alliances defined French relations with the broader Arab and Ottoman worlds until 1830, when the conquest of Algiers ushered in France's Second Colonial Empire. Reversing the loss of territories in the Western hemisphere (particularly North America), French colonial influence spread throughout the Maghreb into West Africa and the Levant. From 1848 to 1962, Algiers and its surrounding regions in Oran and Constantine were administered not as colonies but departments of France; for more than a century, the French state extended on both sides of the Mediterranean, parts of which were sandwiched between the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. French influence in the Levant was solidified by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, whereby France was granted former Ottoman lands in what is now Lebanon, Syria and parts of Turkey and Iraq by agreement with Britain and Russia.
This long history has had lasting effects on the evolution of the French state. Demographics in France, as in many of its European neighbors, reflect an influx of immigrants from its former colonial holdings. Arabs — particularly Algerians and Moroccans — and West Africans, many of them Muslims, have steadily flocked to metropolitan France. Though the European Union does not permit demographic data collection according to religion and race, Western nongovernmental organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trust put France's Muslim population as one of the highest in Europe at 4.7 million. France also has the largest population of Arabs in Europe.
The influx of foreigners has shaped the French political system. The bloody Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962) saw the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the re-entry of Charles de Gaulle into political life; the 1961 massacre of pro-independence Algerians in Paris heralded the political uncertainties of the 1960s that culminated in the French riots of 1968. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s also affected France, with attacks in the Paris Metro and rumored plans by Algerian Islamists to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower. The National Front political party has long rallied its supporters against growing Arab and Islamic influence in France, and Paris has worked diligently to contain a persistent threat of terrorism-related attacks and activities.
French national strategy regarding the Arab world extends beyond politics. It has outlasted former President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right government and accelerated under Socialist President Hollande. Paris' attempts to limit conflict in the region stem from national security prerogatives seeking to contain eventual threats to the French homeland. But France is incapable of shaping events in the Middle East on its own, and since the birth of the Fifth Republic under de Gaulle, France has been less than keen on relying too heavily on either the United States or its European partners to defend its national interests. As the most capable and influential actors in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners have been courted more frequently by a French state desperate to keep Middle Eastern instability from pouring into its borders. Where Saudi Arabia and its allies offer tribal relationships, religious credentials and a willingness to forge links with militant groups of various stripes, Paris brings with it its standing on the U.N. Security Council, military equipment, and financial and technological investment into regional energy projects. The relationship, however, extends beyond mutual economic gain and into the realm of security and survival.
France has thus sided consistently with Arab states on a variety of regional issues, including the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Breaking with the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, Paris has become perhaps the most hardline and suspicious Western power regarding the Iran nuclear negotiations — a position embraced by regional Arab leaders and Israel. At face value, France does not oppose lifting sanctions on Iran; Paris and Tehran historically have had strong political and economic links, especially before the 1979 revolution. But when the Shah fell, so did Iran's role as a primarily stabilizing force in the region. Paris is deeply fearful of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and triggering a broader armed conflict between the main powers of the Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
However, what France fears more than a war in the Middle East is a conflict that could draw in thousands of its own residents and trigger a larger humanitarian crisis that pushes even more migrants into its borders. These concerns have shaped France's positions on Syria and against the Islamic State and provided the impetus for Paris' 2012 intervention against militants in northern Mali. France has also been one of the strongest proponents of a new Western intervention in Libya, though it has found Saudi Arabia a less willing partner than the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, with Riyadh preferring to focus on larger threats closer to the Arabian Peninsula.
France ultimately lacks the military or economic heft to supplant the United States as the dominant Western force in the Middle East, but it has proved that is can be a determined and independently minded foreign actor with strong regional support. Paris will continue to engage with Arab states like Saudi Arabia, but that engagement will be a tacit reminder of France's limitations, not a precursor for more authority in the Middle East.