Macron’s Shaky Search for Balance and Peace in the Middle East
The French president is performing a balancing act between showing loyalty to Israel and attempting to revive the Palestinian cause. His efforts are in line with France’s traditional policy toward the region.
Over lunch this summer in Berlin, a Jewish friend who had recently moved across the Rhine from Paris told me: “Do you know what is strange in Germany? Going to a conference or at a dinner party: I am always the only Jew. I was never alone in Paris.”
This is one of the treasures of life in France. The physiotherapist that cracks your back in the morning, when you tuck in your Babka sandwich over lunch outside the boulangerie, and in the banlieue at the evening game of Red Star FC, the Paris equivalent of FC St Pauli, you constantly rub shoulders with France’s Jewish citoyens. France is home to the second biggest Jewish community outside Israel after the United States.
France’s prime minster, Élisabeth Borne, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. The chansonnier Jean-Jacques Goldman has topped the ranking of France’s favorite personality for 12 years running. This is the country where at a Jewish wedding you gobble kosher foie gras and where on a lazy Sunday en famille you watch “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.” In this film classic Louis de Funès, a son of Spanish immigrants, masterfully joked about French racists and Jewish orthodox life.
You can only playfully parody clichés about Jewish identity for a large audience in a country like the US and France, where Jewish life is an integral part of society. But this always fragile normality in France is what is now at stake.
Threatened Jewish Citoyens
Since the Hamas massacres on October 7, more than 1,500 antisemitic acts have been registered in France, from vandalizations of cemeteries to physical threats. For the full year of 2022 this count stood at 436.
Some of these acts may well have been perpetrated by foreign agitators who want to divide the French and spread distrust—the kryptonite of every democracy. Two Moldovans have been arrested for drawing 250 Stars of David on Parisian walls in recent weeks. The tags were first amplified by social media accounts linked to Russia.
Still, there’s little doubt that antisemitism in France is also homegrown and can be murderous. Twelve French Jews have been killed for antisemitic motives since 2006. Looking for protection, up to 30,000 French Jews have packed up their bags and left for Israel in the past 10 years.
In many European countries, Germany included, antisemitism is by far most prevalent and the commitment to Israel the weakest among supporters of the far right: polls of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) voters say as much. In France, however, polls suggest that antisemitic thought is similarly widespread among supporters of the far left and far right. Far-left La France Insoumise (LFI) figurehead Jean-Luc Mélenchon refuses to call out Hamas as terrorists and wants to place sanctions on Israel for bombing Gaza, while using antisemitically-toned language when tweeting about the conflict.
Polls also show that France’s Muslim citizens hold stronger antisemitic views than the population at large. Most Jewish life was lost due to jihadist terror attacks. Across the Rhine, more than 80 percent of the antisemitic acts in 2022 were committed by German neo-Nazis.
This is why French President Emmanuel Macron choose to address the nation on prime-time TV following the Hamas massacre (US President Joe Biden, but few others did so, too.)
Macron said he shared Israel’s pain, which is also France’s. With more than 40 French citizens killed, no terror attack since the one perpetrated in Nice in 2016 led to so many French deaths, the president underlined. He vowed to bring home the eight French hostages and announced the deployment of 10,000 police officers to guard Jewish sites throughout the country. The republic would act “without merci” against antisemites. France banned pro-Palestine demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of October 7.
But Macron, the president of a universalist republic, also noted concerns about hostility toward France’s Muslims. “Let us stay united,” Macron pleaded in his address. As Transport Minister Clément Beaune, whose great-grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz, said: “Every type of racism and discrimination engenders other types.”
France is also the country where a man called “Mohammed” is four times less likely to be invited to a job interview than a “Michel.” Far-right politician “Éric Zemmour, who has repeatedly been convicted for Islamophobic slurs and says French Muslims must stop practicing their faith to integrate, is still invited onto Saturday night TV shows.
For Macron, navigating the domestic politics of the Israel-Hamas war is a huge challenge. With resurgent antisemitism, Islamist terrorism, Islamophobic attitudes being socially acceptable, documented cases of police violence against French of African origin and this year’s banlieue riots: France is a tinder box.
This is also why Macron supported, but did not to join, the march “For the republic and against antisemitism” that brought an impressive 180,000 French onto the streets waving plenty of tricolores on a rainy day. Yet following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in 2015 four million people protested. Veteran human rights activists, such as Rony Brauman, argued that to be a true unifying moment for France, the march should have been about anti-racism at large.
Close but Complicated
If no European nation has such intimate people-to-people contacts with Israel, Franco-Israeli relations were rarely tranquil.
Together with the United Kingdom, France and Israel famously invaded Egypt and the Gaza Strip in 1956 to regain control of the Suez Canal. The Suez “adventure” failed, but the common interest in combating radical Arab nationalism and weakening Egypt, which supported Algerian independence fighters, is what led France to become Israel’s biggest arms supplier. Paris even helped Tel Aviv set up a nuclear weapons program.
The Franco-Israeli honeymoon came to an abrupt stop with the 1967 Six Day War. Israel launched the surprise attack with French Dassault Mirage III jets. But President Charles de Gaulle denounced what Israel saw as a pre-emptive strike as an “aggression” to enlarge its territory. After Algerian independence in 1962, Paris had also started to rekindle its relations with Arab and Gulf countries on whose oil it grew dependent.
After the rupture of 1967 Franco-Israel relations only warmed with François Mitterrand’s election. In 1982, he was the first French president ever to go to Israel. Speaking in the Knesset, Mitterrand pleaded for a Palestinian state and announced that he would deal with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) if it swore off terrorism and accepted Israel’s right to existence.
The then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, vehemently criticized Mitterrand in his reply. But here was the policy that later would also become the US and European approach to the region. And it was on his first visit to Paris in 1989 that Yasser Arafat’s called the PLO Charter, which challenged Israel’s right to exist, “null and void.”
That is the key to understanding French Israel policy. Unlike Germany’s policy, which is above all guided by a historical imperative, France’s Israel policy has been more opportunistic, driven by changing geopolitical and economic interests in the region.
And since Mitterrand, French policy toward the region has been above all about “balance and peace”. As Macron said last week, “We have told Israel that we support your security, because your security is not only your business.” Roughly 200,000 French citizens live in Israel, while 25,000 French citizens live in neighboring Lebanon.
Macron stands squarely in Mitterrand’s tradition. Since July 2020, his Israel-Palestine adviser has been Ofer Bronchtein, the lifelong peace activist, advisor to former Israeli Prime Minster Yitzakh Rabin (who was murdered in 1995), and a member of the Israeli delegation when the peace with Arafat’s PLO was signed on the White House lawn in 1993.
Thus, Paris in recent years has vocally criticized Israeli policies that undermine the two-state solution, such as support for illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. “The extreme right in Israel and Hamas share the same goal: provoke the violence of the other,” Bronchtein wrote in a recent op-ed for Le Figaro. “There is no security for Israel if it comes at the price of Palestinian lives,” is how Macron put it.
His plan? Secure the liberation of the over 130 remaining hostages in return for a ceasefire. Get Arab countries to join a “global coalition” to fight Hamas, while restarting a peace process. Push Israel to focus on targeted anti-terror operations in Gaza and get humanitarian aid going, for example by moving French military ships to the region.
His hope: This approach would protect civilians, but also reduce the risk of Israel facing a multi-front war, which could lead to a showdown no one wants: A stand-off with Iran. Moreover, if the conflict were to spread that would risk another refugee crisis—something no one in Europe wants.
On-the-Fly Foreign Policy Style
No doubt, Macron’s plan is far from perfect. It assumes that a) Hamas wants a truce now, b) that Hamas can be toppled without a large-scale Gaza operation, and c) that Iran and Hezbollah can be deterred into accepting a Hamas defeat. It’s anyone’s guess if these assumptions are true.
Regardless, the French plan was immediately shot down by nearly everyone in the region. Critics say, Macron’s activism also suffers from the usual problems of his on-the-fly foreign policy style whereby the president constantly readjusts his messaging and publicly voices his propositions before trying to build support for them.
Yet by putting forward his plan, Macron must be applauded for at least starting a global conversation on how the violence can be ended. If one doesn’t start thinking in alternatives, the only certainty is that the battle continues with the remaining hostages not returning and civilians being pushed into the firing line by Hamas and killed by Israeli bombs.
And is Macron increasingly calling out Israel counter-productive? Probably not. If Macron said three weeks ago that there were “too many civilian losses” in Gaza, US Vice President Kamala Harris is now saying the same thing. Since long France has little leverage on Tel Aviv, but by sticking loudly to its historic position of demanding loyalty to Israel and the Palestinian cause, it can still shape the battle of narratives in world public opinion.
And at home? We are far away from the days of the 2018 football world cup when Les Bleus won and everyone linked arms singing along to Aïcha—one of France’s unofficial anthems sung by the Algerian singer Khaled and written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, mentioned above. Yet Macron’s mantra of “one life is worth one life” in this crisis is the right one. Refusing the fatalism and the cold-heartedness that comes with accepting civilian deaths is not only a moral imperative. It is also the key to keeping the tinder box France damp.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.