On Monday’s July 14 Bastille Day in Paris, spectators will be treated to another grand military parade, one of the few such martial national day displays remaining in the democratic West. The audience will include the leaders of the European Union member states as well as those from the (mostly Arab, but including Israel and Turkey) countries bordering the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean. They will be gathered in the French capital for one of the most important events in the early days of the French EU Presidency, the launch of the “Union Pour la Mediterranée (UPM)” or the Union for the Mediterranean.
In Arabic, the Mediterranean Sea is poetically called Al-Bahr Al-Abyad Al-Muttawasit, "the middle white sea.” President Nicolas Sarkozy was a schoolboy when Algeria (where his father had served in the Foreign Legion) became independent, though he may have had occasion to hear the geopolitical adage taught to generations of French schoolchildren: “The Mediterranean separates France, like the Seine separates Paris.” Algeria was an integral part of France, and then suddenly, it wasn’t. A million European settlers left independent Algeria, and in the intervening 46 years, millions of Algerians have settled in France. The Med is definitely a middle passage between North and South.
With his present and former family connections in Ottoman-era Greece (mother's family), Corsica (first wife) Spain (wife No. 2, Cecilia), and Italy (current wife Carla), it is perhaps not surprising that the Mediterranean has had a special place in Sarkozy’s heart, even before his election to the Elysée Palace in spring 2007. And this has all the hallmarks of a personal project: in June 2007, Quai d’Orsay diplomats responded with quizzical looks when asked about the new president’s Mediterranean ambitions. Even now, on the eve of the summit, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs website gives much more space to the EU-Mediterranean Dialogue (an ongoing program) than to the Presidential UPM, which still has much to be defined (not the least of which, where will it be headquartered: Tunis on the southern shore, or Barcelona on the Spanish coast?).
Emotion-Laden North-South Relationships
The love/hate relationship between France and its former “colony” (the word was never used by the French, but the Algerians still pride themselves, sometimes even define themselves, by being at the forefront of the anti-colonialist drive from the Fifties through the Seventies) has in some ways been the bellwether of the Sarkozy Mediterranean proposal. France and its policies are always treated with circumspection in Algeria, and few domestic points are gained in Algeria by seeming to kowtow to the former masters. (Though Algeria's ace political cartoonist Dilem has it right when he shows what Algeria's unemployed "hittistes" want out of the UPM: calm Mediterranean seas for their rafts, or preferably, French visas; emigration is still a big drain/safety valve). At one point, it seemed that Algeria would scupper the whole deal.
In the end, Algerian President Bouteflika’s foot dragging on the Mediterranean project was overcome by careful French diplomacy, though not in the case of the one remaining holdout, Colonel (do we still call him that?) Kadhafi of Libya. Despite blandishments (nuclear project, arms deals, wife No. 2 Cecilia as emissary-of-charm, week-long state visit to Paris last year), Kadhafi has condemned the Sarkozy Med Union. Anyway, his life long ambition has been to unify (often literally, through mergers and sometimes with weapons) the Arab and African worlds that are Libya’s home turf.
Sarkozy’s ambitions for a French-led Mediterranean project were severely modified by Germany, which succeeded in EU-izing (opening up to non-Med EU countries what had previously been seen as a Mediterranean riparian state grouping) Sarkozy’s vision. As former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine said today on France-Inter radio, the test of the new Med Union will be whether it can create a co-secretariat to build on the high-level co-presidential (France and Egypt) kickoff summit, and not just become a subcommittee of the EU. Egypt, with its concentric Arab, African, and Middle East (especially longstanding relations with Israel) circles, and its experienced diplomatic corps, is an inspired choice to help France get the new grouping off the ground.
Another “Machin” or An Essential Tool?
Vedrine, along with a number of right and left of center European and southern Mediterranean luminaries, signed an “open letter” to the leaders gathering in Paris this weekend, published in Thursday’s Le Monde. Though the letter enthuses about the Med Union’s potential for peacemaking (all eyes will be on the body language between Israeli and Syrian leaders this weekend), Vedrine on the radio spoke to the more nuts-and-bolts projects for the Union. One not so trivial matter: North-South cooperation on cleaning up what is essentially massive a salty lake, one that gets dumped on, literally, with every effluent man and industry can produce. If nothing else, Union for the Mediterranean success in this one crisis area could make the nascent organization worth all the hoopla. As one commentator put it, success in "small" practical matters counts, and cited the EU's beginnings as a post-WW II coal and steel cartel combining the victors and the vanquished.
In his definitive work on the fall of France in 1940 “To Lose a Battle,” British historian (of France and Algeria) Alistair Horne starts off with a vivid portrait of another Bastille Day parade, that of the victorious French Army in July 1919, the first such parade after the end of the carnage of World War One the previous November. At the time, the consensus was that the French Army was the biggest and best in the world. True, but we know what the inter war period did to its relative standing against the Wehrmacht. There was no follow up to the big show.
For the EU and Mediterranean leaders lined up on the Champs Elysées for Monday’s parade, what comes after will be the true test of the fine new Union For The Mediterranean to be unveiled this coming weekend. Those 40 plus leaders, if not backed up by painstaking staff work, may be present at the creation of another “machin” (probably best translated as “thingy” - Charles De Gaulle’s ironic description of the UN and like multilateral organizations, which have to struggle to avoid being labeled talking shops).
Haraka mush Baraka: The Dangers of Perpetual Movement
Machin vs. functional coalition: does Sarkozy himself have the wherewithal and patience to stick with his bright shiny idea in the long term? Wherewithal: yes (once the Quai d’Orsay is convinced that this is a going concern, it will apply itself to making it work). Patience: this is Sarko’s Achilles heel. The man, once described by an observant Brit as a kind of Tigger, bounces around from idea to proposal to next inspiration, whether domestic or international. Bitter Lemons also has misgivings about his "frenetic" pace, and has devoted several articles to the Mediterranean Union plan from Arab, Israeli, and Turkish viewpoints.
The Mediterranean is timeless, but action is urgent; Sarkozy is a man in a hurry, but he’ll need to down shift and focus in this forum which will juxtapose cultures with different notions of time. After all, his Maghrebi counterparts know the meaning behind a traditional expression, "Haraka mush Baraka." Movement - for movement's sake - does not equate with benediction.