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Will France's New President Rise To The Challenge Of A Changing North Africa?

France has close by complicated relationships with countries like Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, where the effects of the Arab spring may vary but cannot be undone. After sometimes tense relations with Nicolas Sarkozy, what approach will François Hollande take?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Big expectations for Franois Hollande in North Africa (Fabien Ecochard)

PARIS - The new French President has just arrived in office, but already has a heavy load: the Franco-German relationship, the G8, the Greek crisis. François Hollande’s attention is turned to the world super-powers and his European partners. What lies beyond the Mediterranean Sea doesn’t seem to be part of his immediate agenda, in spite of its importance. And yet, the Maghreb’s future is essential for France.

France is Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia’s first economic partner. The country has an essential role to play in this region, whether it be in political cooperation, regional integration, migration flows control or democratization.

Maghreban capitals are waiting with great interest for François Hollande’s first speech on the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), for example. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy carried this project forward single-handedly, and the UfM is the embodiment of France’s desire to see the Mediterranean Sea as “a lake that brings people closer” and not a “dividing sea.”

The continuation of this beautiful project – which suffered from a lack of concrete actions – would send a strong signal to the Maghreb: it would mean that Paris intends to remain the driving force of European efforts to integrate the South.  It would mean that France wants to continue working with its North African and Middle Eastern partners, even if these countries are weathering through difficult times.

France's view of the Arab world

A year after the Arab Spring and all the changes it set in motion, the nature of the relationship between France and the Maghreb needs to be put in question. After a spate of anti-Arab statements during the French presidential election campaign, the upcoming legislative elections must be seized as an opportunity to encourage tolerance and respect – principles put forward by François Hollande during his campaign.

The whole of Maghreb is waiting for this kind of message, because many of them have a cousin, a brother or an aunt living and working in France, and who is worried about the durability of his or her stay.

But beyond symbols, there are high expectations for François Hollande on foreign policy issues concerning the Maghreb. In Algeria -France’s former colony- reconciliation will be at the core of the new President’s agenda. In Tunisia –which used to be a French Protectorate- France should play a role in the country’s transition, notably in the economic field. In Morocco, aside from the construction of a railway between Tangier and Casablanca, France should continue to support the autonomy plan outlined by Morocco in Western Sahara.

François Hollande won’t be in uncharted waters here. As First Secretary of the Socialist Party, he often travelled to the Maghreb to meet the main political and economic figures, and even State leaders. He knows the issues on which he will have to take a stand quickly. Let’s just hope that his actions are those of a President, and not dictated by a partisan agenda that some might be tempted to influence.

Read the article in French in Le Nouvel Observateur.

Photo - Fabien Ecochard

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