France Likely to Dial Down Relations with Qatar After Election

Both presidential candidates have criticized France’s cozy relations with the Persian Gulf state.

French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22, 2012
French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22, 2012 (Elysée/Christelle Alix)

The cozy relationship enjoyed between France and Qatar may come to an end after the election on Sunday. Both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have bashed the Persian Gulf state on the campaign trail.

“I will put an end to the agreements that favor Qatar in France,” Macron, the frontrunner, said last month. “I think there was a lot of complacencies, during Nicolas Sarkozy’s five-year term in particular.”

Sarkozy, a conservative, intensified cooperation with Qatar. His left-wing successor, François Hollande, did not reverse the policy.

Macron, a former economy minister under Hollande, has pledged to demand that Western allies in the Middle East, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, show a “new transparency as to their role in financing or other actions regarding terrorist groups that are our enemies.”

Eye to eye

Le Pen is Macron’s opposite in many ways, but on this issue they see eye to eye.

A spokesperson for Le Pen’s National Front has called for limiting “economic and diplomatic exchanges with countries which openly or bluntly support Islamic fundamentalism” — naming Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular — and argued for closer cooperation with states that fight radicalization, such as Egypt and Jordan.

Le Pen has also accused Qatar of supporting Mali’s rebels at the height of the French intervention there in 2013.

There appears to be some truth to this. The weekly Le Canard enchaîné cited an unnamed French intelligence official making a similar accusation while Qatari officials dissuaded representatives of fellow Muslim nations from labeling the Malian insurgents as a terrorist organization.

Football

French-Qatari relations have long relied on personal ties between the emirate’s royal family and the French elite. High-profile Qatari royals, including the emir himself, speak French fluently.

Sarkozy, in power from 2007 to 2012, had a penchant for personalizing foreign relations. He hosted the then-heir apparent to the Qatari throne, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the Elysée Palace in 2010. Also in attendance were the president of the Union of European Football Associations and a representative of the ownership group behind the storied French football club Paris Saint-Germain.

Weeks later, Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Another year later, Qatar bought Paris Saint-Germain and invested heavily in the club.

Fighter jets

The alliance deepened after Sarkozy was defeated in 2012.

Elected on a platform to soak the rich, the Socialist Hollande nevertheless rubbed shoulders with Qatari billionaires. He twice visited the country: in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion, he finalized an agreement for the sale of 24 French Rafale fighter jets to Qatar alongside MBDA missiles.

France also started training Qatari fighter pilots and technicians.

Qatar has not featured prominently in this year’s election campaign, but the fact that Macron and Le Pen have come out on top does suggest French voters desire a less intimate relationship with the troubled emirate and its often meddling foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa.

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