DISCLAIMER: all opinions in this column reflect view of the autor(s), not of Vocal Europe
by Joseph Hammond*
One of the first tests Emmanuel Marcon will face as French president is also an unlikely one: will he follow through on his tough campaign rhetoric regarding the tiny Arab nation of Qatar?
He was unequivocal during his run for office: “I will put an end to the agreements that favor Qatar in France,” Macron said during a debate on France’s BFM in April.
Both Macron and his main opponent, Marine Le Pen, attacked Qatar on the campaign trail. For Le Pen, Qatar bashing was a well-established sport. Throughout her years she has attacked Qatar’s links to terrorist groups in Mali and the country’s promotion of extremist Islamic views more generally. For Macron, it was a rare departure from his more internationalist views, though a politically shrewd one.
Macron was playing to a French nation which has suffered in recent years from dramatic terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere from groups who are similar to those funded by Qatar. French voters may also be concerned about prominent Qatari investments in their country most notably in Paris Saint-Germain, the country’s most famous soccer club.
Macron may soon discover untangling Franco-Qatari ties is easier said than done as economic ties are deep between France and the tiny Arab nation located on the Persian Gulf.
Restructuring Franco-Qatari economic ties could have dramatic consequences. Qatar has invested some $2 billion in France in recent years. In return, there are 120 French companies active in Qatar as well as many more French franchises. Macron was referring to a deal which made Qatar exempt from paying certain capital gains taxes in French real-estate transactions.
According to the French newspaper Liberation, some of France’s biggest companies, including GDF Suez, Airbus, Vinci, and Areva, are partly owned by the Qatar Investment Authority or other sovereign wealth funds controlled by Qatari interest. Little wonder then that France is the number two destination for Qatari exports according to 2015 figures.
Marcon’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, made a robust French-Qatari relationship a priority. Upon his election in 2012, Hollande saw in Qatar an opportunity. At the time Qatar had committed some $150 billion to infrastructure projects ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. With gas prices in some markets over $10 per million British thermal units (mBTU), Qatar had money to burn.
Hollande dispatched Nicole Briq, France’s minister of trade to the arab nation’s capital, Doha, in 2013 to build on already warm Franco-Qatari ties.
Her official visit included a reception hosted by France’s seaside embassy which included expensive cheeses, fresh baguettes, Foie gras, and other gourmet products flown in from France for the occasion. The party included pork dishes and free-flowing alcohol both of which are usually difficult to come by in conservative Qatar.
Underlining the close relationship between the two nations, the French Embassy is the only major Western embassy in Doha’s West Bay, the glitzy skyscraper district where real estate is at a premium. Furthermore, a tunnel underneath Diplomatic Road links the Embassy with the official diplomatic residence. “We are the only embassy given this luxury by our Qatari hosts,” a French diplomat at Briq’s reception noted.
That year, Senator Marie Le Pen helped build her national profile with an attack on France’s proximate ties to Qatar that year, “Doha is now the holiday capital of the French elite,” she wrote in 2013.
Briq’s visit paved the way for a visit by French President Francois Hollande that same year. Hollande returned in 2015. His second trip saw the signing of a deal selling Qatar some 24 Rafale fighter jets. “If we are present here in Qatar and the region it is because France is considered a reliable country which a partner country can give their confidence to,” Hollande said at the time.
Hollande’s visit signaled French support for Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani – the new emir had only taken over for his father in mid-2013. In his first interview after assuming the throne, Al-Thani told CNN that Qatar funds “Islamist groups [when] we don’t consider them as terrorists” naming Egypt, Libya and places Syria where Qatar was supporting such groups. Hamas which is designated a terrorist organization in both the U.S. and Europe is one such group.
Concerns over terrorism were one of the aspects driving the campaign of Marie Le Pen and Macron did well to play up his credentials as a French nationalist and national security concerns. He now will have to weigh those political concerns over the possible economic damage of a new relationship with Qatar.
*Joseph Hammond is a journalist with the American Media Institute and was a journalist and correspondent for Radio Free Europe.