Often more measured than its Western allies, France has long favored a mediating policy between Israel and the Palestinians. But the recent positions taken by President Emmanuel Macron, largely in favor of the Jewish State, seem to spell the end of the traditional French position initiated by General de Gaulle.
When Israel was created in 1948, France was initially a strong supporter of the young Jewish state. De Gaulle had, in fact, an excellent relationship with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and largely supported Israel’s arms needs even before the United States.
France had also voted in favor of the plan to partition Palestine by the UN on November 29, 1947. The delivery of numerous Mirages will allow Israel to assert its military superiority and Paris will strongly support its nuclear program.
Having the largest Jewish and Muslim community in Europe, France must however walk on eggshells.
Reorienting French politics
After the Algerian War and the Suez Canal crisis, France sought to regain its place among Arab countries. Especially since the emergence of hydrocarbons represented an increasingly important necessity for the economy.
Favorable to a multipolar world, de Gaulle wanted to make France an independent mediating power by leaving the American fold. An aspiration which encouraged him to pursue a balanced policy between Israel and other countries in the region.
Increasing diplomatic contacts with Arab countries, France will welcome the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Amin al-Husseini who was wanted by Great Britain. A policy that will bear fruit: in 1966,
Having regained a favorable position in the region, France wanted to avoid at all costs a new war which could destroy all its efforts.
The end of an agreement
At the dawn of the 1967 war, de Gaulle felt events were accelerating and decided to set up a preventive embargo on the sale of arms to Israel. At the same time, in May, he asked the Israelis not to attack Egypt, without success.
A decision that provokes a change in French politics. On November 27, 1967, Charles de Gaulle delivered his famous speech which would sound the death knell for the great Franco-Israeli cooperation.
He criticizes Zionism which was established on lands “which had been acquired under more or less justifiable conditions”, and the Jews “an elite people, sure of themselves and dominating”. Faced with “a warlike State of Israel determined to expand”, he castigates “the occupation which cannot go without oppression, repression, expulsions, and there appears against it a resistance, which he in turn describes of terrorism”.
But it was above all the attack on Beirut airport in 1968 by an Israeli commando using French-made helicopters which ended up burying good Israeli-French understanding. De Gaulle then decreed an embargo on all military equipment against Israel. A decision that will throw the Jewish state into the arms of the Americans.
After de Gaulle, continuity
After de Gaulle, successive presidents will maintain the course of French politics. In addition to benefiting from successful arms sales agreements with Arab countries, President Pompidou will develop European diplomacy to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His criticism of illegal settlements and the mention of the rights of Palestinian refugees will accelerate the deterioration of Franco-Israeli relations.
Under Giscard, France opened dialogue with Yasser Arafat and allowed the installation of an official representation of the PLO in Paris. The French president is also increasing military arms sales to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Israel then feels threatened, especially since France wants to make the PLO a key player. In this dynamic, it recognized the “inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine” and voted on November 22, 1974 to recognize the PLO as an observer member of the UN.
More measured, François Mitterrand went to Israel in 1982, a first for a French president. But he received Yasser Arafat as president at the Élysée on May 2, 1989 and supported the Palestinians’ right to a state. He also ensured the protection of the PLO during Operation Peace in Galilee launched by Israel in Lebanon in 1982.
Much loved by the Palestinians, Jacques Chirac will provoke the ire of the Israelis by refusing to intervene in Iraq and by maintaining good relations with Arafat. We then remember his famous phrase “what do you want? Me to go back to my plane and go back to France?”, during an altercation with the Israeli police on October 22, 1996. A reaction and political positions which will increase France’s aura in Arab countries.
A progressive alignment since Sarkozy
The presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy will mark a first shift in French policy. We are witnessing a gradual alignment with American policy, which begins with the reintegration of the country into the integrated command of NATO. The new president has deep sympathy for Israel, but the Jewish state’s refusal to negotiate and French support for a Palestinian state leaves relations strained.
Tensions which will continue under François Hollande. On November 29, 2012, France voted for the admission of Palestine to the UN as a non-member observer state. A decision that provokes the ire of Israel. Before the Knesset, he asserted: “France’s position is known: it is a negotiated settlement so that the States of Israel and Palestine, both having Jerusalem as their capital, can coexist in peace and security.”
The election of Emmanuel Macron on May 7, 2017 will mark a more brutal change in French politics. The same year, he invited Benjamin Netanyahu to the commemoration of the Vél d’Hiv roundup. In his speech, he then affirmed that anti-Zionism is “the reinvented form of anti-Semitism”.
Macron facing October 7
In the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, Emmanuel Macron will affirm France’s “solidarity”, emphasizing the right of Israelis “to defend themselves”. Castigating the Hamas “terrorists” who “offer nothing other than more terror and bloodshed to the Palestinian people”, he will be slow to worry about the massive bombings on Gaza.
Statements that will put the French president in a delicate position, both with his Arab partners and within the French population. The muzzling of pro-Palestinian positions as well as the ban on solidarity rallies with the Palestinians (the only country in Europe with Hungary) will increase the instability of its position. Faced with the discontent of part of his population and Arab countries, Emmanuel Macron will have to make a choice while sparing his Jewish population. A balancing act that his predecessors understood well.
This article is originally published on icibeyrouth.com