PARIS - A specter is looming over France. That specter is called Qatar.
Qatar's announcement that it would invest 50 million euros in the impoverished suburbs outside Paris, an investment that will be matched by a fund partly financed by the French government and partly by the private sector, has sparked growing controversy.
Some people would have you believe that France’s independence is being threatened by this tiny Arab state of 1.7 million people -- of whom only 300,000 are Qatari nationals. From the comments, you’d think France is about to be invaded by Qatar.
If we are to believe the critics, the 50 million euros Qatar wants to pour into Paris’ troubled suburbs will endanger French national identity -- which mustn’t be that strong if it is threatened by so little.
Let us take a rational approach, which has so far been lacking from this debate. Qatar has been investing billions of euros in France for numerous years. It also buys large amounts of capital goods from France.
However, this current investment fund plan has provoked more commentary than the much larger investment deals in French industrial groups, or utility companies. Since Qatar's 40 millions euro acquisition of 70% of the Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) soccer club last year, Qatar seems to have become the center of a continuing debate in Paris.
There is no doubt that the news of the Qatari investment brought to mind, for many people, the image of a horde of imams that would come preaching Wahhabism and hatred of the West in our immigrant suburbs -- that are already close to implosion. However, when the American Embassy in France announced in 2010 that youth outreach in Paris’ disadvantaged suburbs was one of its key priorities, we hardly said a word.
No doubt if the actions funded by the Qatari fund aren’t 100% kosher, sensationalist and denunciatory media coverage from the French press will ensue.
Unfortunately, the French government has abandoned these disadvantaged, immigrant suburbs -- and the people who live there are neither being valued nor considered. Both the U.S. and Qatar recognize this, as well as a handful of French politicians.
It is amusing to witness the French hysteria over the news of this Qatari investment, a tiny investment compared to the billions spent by Qatari investors in other sectors.
When a Qatari investment fund bought the PSG soccer club, the Sports Minister at the time, Chantal Jouanno, publicly complained about the fact that the club would be held by foreign capital. The only problem with this was that the club’s previous owners were a U.S. investment fund -- that didn’t put much money in the club, truth be told.
People said that after the Qatari buyout, the French women's team would not be allowed to play at the PSG's Parc des Princes stadium. In fact, the women’s team had never played there before the buyout. It’s worth noting that since the Qataris bought the PSG, the women’s team has gone professional and seen its budget multiplied by four.
People also said that the club’s agreement with the Paris Foot Gay (PFG) team would be repealed, since Qatar, like many Arabic countries, penalizes homosexuality. However, the agreement was renewed. Qatar respects the French legal system whilst they are in France. The hotels that they own here serve alcohol too.
France and Qatar started enjoying a close relationship when the current emir came to power in 1996. In 2000, when the country launched a project to mine liquefied petroleum gas, the only company to jump on the opportunity was France’s Total, while Anglo-Saxon companies shied away. At the time, a barrel of oil was not much more than $10. Since then, political, military, economic and strategic relations between the two countries have developed to mutually benefit one another.
Yes, Qatar is pursuing its national interest, but what's wrong with that? It's a win-win situation for both countries, with France being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Qatar being a small, extremely wealthy, yet fragile country that needs to assert itself on the map in relation to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.