Home French News When France was a friend to the Palestinians, by Benoît Bréville (Le Monde diplomatique

When France was a friend to the Palestinians, by Benoît Bréville (Le Monde diplomatique

When France was a friend to the Palestinians, by Benoît Bréville (Le Monde diplomatique

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Pragmatism in action: Yasser Arafat welcomes Jacques Chirac to Gaza, 23 October 1996

Jacques Langevin · Sygma · Getty

On 23 October 1996, the day after his famous altercation with Israeli police in Jerusalem, Jacques Chirac met Yasser Arafat in Gaza, where the two presidents inaugurated Charles de Gaulle Street in front of an enthusiastic crowd. A decade later, in April 2007, on a visit to Paris, the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, announced plans to create a Jacques Chirac Street in Ramallah. There will be no Emmanuel Macron Street in Nablus. The French president is hated in the Arab world: when the people of Tunis and Beirut took to the streets to protest against Israel’s response to the 7 October attacks by Hamas and its allies, they assembled outside the French embassy chanting ‘Macron the murderer’.

‘There are no buts … Israel has the right to defend itself,’ Macron insisted on 12 October, in perfect lockstep with Washington. Two days earlier, President Joe Biden had set the tone: ‘Israel has the right to respond, indeed has a duty to respond to these vicious attacks … There’s no justification for terrorism. There’s no excuse.’ Just as during operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defence (2012), Protective Edge (2014), Guardian of the Walls (2021) and Breaking Dawn (2022), the Israeli government has carte blanche to carry out Operation Swords of Iron. It can act as it wishes, inflicting power and water cuts, population displacements and indiscriminate bombings, unrestrained and free of criticism from its allies, except for symbolic and consequence-free pronouncements, which Macron is always happy to provide.

Israel is setting up in the territories it has captured an occupation that will inevitably involve oppression, repression and expulsions, and a resistance to this occupation is forming, which Israel in turn classes as terrorism

Charles de Gaulle

It’s hard to believe now, but France was once thought a friend of the Palestinian people. For decades, its leaders were prepared to denounce colonisation, occupation, expulsions, humiliations – all the ‘buts’ now banned from official speech. General de Gaulle vehemently opposed the Israeli offensive of June 1967 and even imposed an arms embargo. That November, he said at a press conference, ‘Israel is setting up in the territories it has captured an occupation that will inevitably involve oppression, repression and expulsions, and a resistance to this occupation is forming, which Israel in turn classes as terrorism.’

After that, each president (until Nicolas Sarkozy) executed his own bold moves, symbolic gestures and diplomatic decisions, which often irritated Tel Aviv and Washington. Georges Pompidou expanded French arms exports to Arab states; Valéry Giscard d’Estaing initiated dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and pushed for the EEC to adopt the Venice declaration affirming the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination; François Mitterrand uttered the words ‘PLO’ and ‘Palestinian state’ in a speech to the Knesset in 1982 and received Yasser Arafat at the Élysée in 1989. And Chirac retains a place in many Palestinians’ memories not only for the 1996 visit but also for his fierce opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, for welcoming a sick Yasser Arafat to France and for being the first head of state to pay tribute to him when he died.

France’s image now tarnished

France’s non-alignment fell into the broader framework of an Arab policy which De Gaulle pursued from 1967, at a time when Paris’s relations with the Maghreb and the Middle East were decidedly turbulent. And not without reason: France had, with the UK and Israel, taken part in the Suez military expedition in 1956 and clashed with Tunisia over the return of the Biserte naval base in 1961, three years after it bombed the Tunisian village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef, in the belief it was harbouring Algerian independence fighters. Not forgetting the Algerian war itself, which left hundreds of thousands dead. In other words, France’s image was especially tarnished.

De Gaulle understood the importance of the Arab world, where France’s roots dated back to the colonial and mandate periods. The oil-rich region was of growing geopolitical significance, though it remained at something of a remove from cold war divisions. Paris had hopes of playing more than a bit part by charting its own course between the two blocs, using Arab countries as a bridge or sounding board in its relations with the developing world. Eager to maintain France’s post-imperial influence, De Gaulle tried to free his country from the US’s shadow, developing an independent nuclear deterrent, leaving NATO’s integrated command and criticising the US military engagement in Vietnam in his Phnom Penh speech in 1966.

‘France has no Arab policy any more than it has a Chinese policy, but it has a policy of its interests towards Arab countries,’ explained Pompidou’s foreign minister Michel Jobert, one of the architects of this strategy. Sometimes, these interests required siding with the US, as during the 1991 Gulf war – a stance Arab states saw as betrayal. But often, they meant that France pursued its own course, ensuring Paris’s popularity around the world. After condemning the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chirac received a hero’s welcome from hundreds of thousands of people in Algiers and Oran; jubilant crowds also greeted him in Timbuktu. Since then, France has had to get used to protests outside its embassies, from Niger to Lebanon, Burkina Faso to Tunisia, and Chad to Iran.

France has no Arab policy any more than it has a Chinese policy, but it has a policy of its interests towards Arab countries

Michel Jobert

French presidents now simply follow the path set by Washington on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, supporting Tel Aviv and increasingly treating this territorial conflict as part of the ‘fight against terrorism’. In 2009, after three weeks of intensive bombings of Gaza, Nicolas Sarkozy stated that ‘Europeans stand with Israel to ensure its right to security.’ Five years later, with Gaza again under fire, François Hollande expressed his full ‘solidarity’ with the Israeli government, which he believed was ‘entitled to take all measures to protect its population’. And now we have Macron.

This alignment with the US, besides tarnishing France’s image in the Global South, looks absurd on multiple fronts. By scrupulously following Washington on all strategic issues, from Ukraine to the Middle East, Paris has thrown in its lot with a declining and contested power. At a time when many states want a multipolar world, France should seek new alliances and reclaim its status as a mediating power, rather than alienating a large part of the world. The Gaza war has yet again highlighted the hypocrisy of the West, which invokes international law to justify supporting Ukraine but forgets about it when it comes to the Palestinians – a double standard that Vladimir Putin, who knows all about those himself, is quick to criticise. It’s a view that resonates.

Not only is Macron damaging France’s international standing by aligning Paris with the US, but he is jeopardising its reputation as a defender of public freedoms. When he talks about foreign policy, he clothes himself in the values of freedom, democracy and tolerance, the better to condemn authoritarian regimes. These values are elevated to the level of a secular religion, to the point where challenging or even discussing them becomes heretical. So, to defend his ‘liberal’ foreign policy, Macron ends up implementing repressive measures. France is – with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – the only European state to ban Palestinian solidarity protests nationwide. In Brussels, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Vienna you see ‘Boycott Israel’ signs. In France, such a sign would instantly be labelled antisemitic and ministers, egged on by journalists, would appear on television to demand legal action.

McCarthyism returns

Often at the interior ministry’s request, investigations for being a ‘terrorism apologist’ have been opened against the New Anticapitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA), which expressed its ‘support for Palestinians and the means they have chosen to resist’; La France Insoumise (LFI) MP Danièle Obono, who clumsily called Hamas a ‘resistance movement that defines itself as such’; and the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (Parti des Indigènes de la République, PIR). Proceedings have also been initiated against a Nice football player, two trade unionists and a socialist politician from Échirolles. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin has announced the start of a ‘dissolution process’ against ‘several groups indirectly and secretly acting as intermediary for, and financing, Hamas or movements close to Hamas’.

The witch-hunt turned to farce when Chamas Tacos, a fastfood restaurant in Valence, was threatened with closure by municipal police unless it turned off its neon sign: because its initial ‘C’ was malfunctioning, the sign read ‘Hamas Tacos’. This would be risible if the absurdity did not sometimes take on a disturbing character, as in the US, where Harvard students have paid dearly for writing an open letter highlighting Israel’s responsibilities in the Hamas attack. Though their names did not feature in the original document, they were soon published on social media. Some Wall Street executives established a blacklist to prevent them being hired. Funded by a conservative lobby, a truck with a giant billboard toured the campus, displaying the names and faces of ‘Harvard’s leading anti-Semites’ (1). Having aligned itself diplomatically with the US, France may now be importing its worst excesses, including paranoia and McCarthyism, in the name of prosecuting the clash of civilisations.


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