On​ 27 May, Emmanuel Macron tweeted his outrage at the Israeli bombing of a tent encampment in Rafah that left at least 45 civilians dead. ‘These operations must stop,’ he wrote. ‘There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.’ Macron had already marked his distance from Israel in April, six months into the onslaught on Gaza, when he signed a joint statement with King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi calling for an immediate ceasefire and stressing ‘our determination to step up our joint efforts to effectively bring about the two-state solution’.

Since taking office in 2017, Macron has made many such gestures. They set him apart from other Western leaders and reverberate among parts of the French electorate that remain suspicious of his economic policies. Even before his election to the presidency, Macron was a revisionist on the colonial question. ‘I have always condemned colonisation as an act of barbarity,’ he told an Algerian TV presenter while on the campaign trail in 2017, ‘a crime against humanity.’ A few months later, on a presidential visit to Burkina Faso, he told an audience of students that he belonged to a generation ‘for whom the crimes of European colonisation cannot be disputed and are part of our history’. In 2018 he acknowledged that Maurice Audin, a young French militant for Algerian independence, was murdered in detention in 1957; no previous head of state had been willing to admit as much. In 2019 he authorised a commission to report on the role of France in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and on a trip to Kigali in 2021 acknowledged its ‘damning responsibility’, though his commission was careful to say that France was not ‘complicit’. In 2020 he ordered 19th-century specimen skulls held in the Musée de l’Homme to be returned to Algeria; he also commissioned another investigation, by the historian Benjamin Stora, into disputes (intra-French and bilateral) over the late colonial period in Algeria and France’s undeclared war against the independence movement.

Most of Macron’s interventions concede a point of principle in parts of the world where, in practice, France has single-mindedly pursued its economic interests. But Israel is a separate matter, despite its resemblance to France’s colonial project in Algeria and the fact that several senior figures in the Israeli political class, including the finance minister (Bezalel Smotrich), the national security minister (Itamar Ben-Gvir) and the deputy mayor of Jerusalem (Aryeh King), have spoken of Palestinians in much the same way as Hutu exterminationists spoke of the Tutsi in 1994. (In a bitter irony for Palestinians, the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, flew to Rwanda in April to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the genocide and, while he was at it, to call for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.) France only changed its stance on Rwanda many years after the event and, whatever Macron’s pronouncements, there may be no serious French revisionist position on Palestine until long after Gaza is razed to the ground.

Israel grips the imagination of the French political class; Palestine does not. Historians have done industrious work on the deportation of 76,000 Jews to death camps with the active support of the Vichy regime. Israel may well be a rogue state in the eyes of the Global South, but in France its existence goes some way to repairing past wrongs. The best that French presidents can do is to affirm that, like those of any abused minority, Palestinian rights need to be taken seriously. This remains a hypothetical position, overshadowed not only by the constant work of Holocaust memorialisation but by France’s economic relationship with Israel, which accounts for roughly 40 per cent of French export earnings in the ‘Near East’ (the other countries are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). The military component is trifling: around €210 million worth of equipment over the last ten years. But Israel’s big infrastructure projects have long looked attractive to French engineering companies, even when they violate international law by contracting for transport links that extend through occupied East Jerusalem towards the illegal settlements on the West Bank.

By contrast, French civil society, with its plethora of associations and NGOs, has never been at ease with the occupation of Palestine, and a robust network of pro-Palestinian solidarity groups and activists has achieved some notable victories. In 2019, after years of work, a diverse alliance of human rights groups, pro-Palestinian activist organisations and France’s two biggest trade unions prevailed on Alstom, the giant French train manufacturer, to pull out of a new phase in the Jerusalem Light Rail project. Alstom ended up explaining to two Israeli partner firms that the project might put the company in breach of French law. Veolia, which played a key role in the early development of the JLR, as well as in bus services, landfill and waste-water treatment for the settlements, divested its holdings in Israel in 2015.

The trickle of French military sales has also been challenged in the courts by pro-Palestinian groups, as other countries – Canada, Spain – opt for a full embargo. Objections to the supply of weapons technology to the Middle East are not new in France. Several French companies have been called to account, on grounds of complicity in war crimes, for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and their deadly consequences in Yemen. There were protests about transfers to Israel during the 2014 war on Gaza, and eventually there was a court case in Paris, brought by the Shuheibar family, who lost three children – they were on the roof of the house feeding their pigeons – to a guided missile containing a sensor made by the French company Exxelia. The case is ongoing.

Since the butchery in Gaza began, the government has held its own against a barrage of parliamentary interventions – ‘questions’ would be putting it mildly – from left-wing MPs in La France Insoumise. But it has certainly flinched under pressure from the big human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, and at the end of May it announced that Israel, which planned to send 74 of its arms and security companies to Paris in mid-June, would no longer be welcome at this year’s Eurosatory, a biennial arms bazaar hosted by France (the courts have just ruled the decision unconstitutional, too late for this year’s fair).

The pro-Palestinian movement in France germinated in the late 1950s, after the Suez Crisis, largely among Christian intellectuals troubled both by the ‘Arab question’ in Palestine and the colonial war in Algeria. The review L’Esprit, whose humanist Catholicism had taken a turn to the left after the German occupation, was well disposed towards the young Jewish state, but made its reservations plain. In an article published in 1958, Paul Ricoeur challenged the claims of André Neher, a fellow contributor to L’Esprit, that the accession of Jews to biblical lands anchored an ‘essence’ of Jewishness. ‘Is this essence you invoke,’ Ricoeur asked Neher, ‘which in your view founds your right to the land of Palestine, compatible with the existence of others, in surrounding territories and, indeed, on the same land?’ Ricoeur worried about the looming ‘racist’ spectre of Israeli ‘militarism and expansionism’ and ended his piece by calling for the ‘great powers’ to impose ‘an embargo on all arms destined for any country in the Near East’. Macron – an admirer of Ricoeur who worked closely with him in the 1990s as an editorial assistant on one of his last books, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (2000) – would do well to revisit that piece.

French trade unions, too, had their doubts about Israel’s Potemkin village, in which the desert bloomed, muscular Jews toiled at the land and dispossessed Palestinians were kept entirely out of the picture. Whatever the allure of Israel’s socialist-style kibbutzim, the disaster that befell the Palestinians had still to be reckoned with. The Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens was slow to rally to the idea of Algerian independence, but at the time of Suez it was reminding members of the public that ‘all peoples, all nations are equal,’ including Algeria, Vietnam, Hungary and ‘Israel-Palestine’. In the early 1960s the union morphed away from its radical Christian origins to become the more secular CFDT, today the second largest union in France. It has recently called for France to recognise Palestine as a state. So has the (thoroughly secular) daily L’Humanité, with an appeal signed by twenty thousand people.

The Comité inter-mouvements auprès des évacués (la Cimade) was set up in 1939 by a Protestant activist group to help hundreds of thousands of evacuees in north-east France who had been moved away from the Maginot Line on the eve of the German invasion. Many were Jews. Now an influential lay association with a residue of Christian socialism, la Cimade prefers not to insist on ironclad positions – it resembles the 20th-century version of the International Committee of the Red Cross in national microcosm – but it urges its donors and activists to subscribe to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and in May suggested they sign the appeal in L’Humanité.

This restless impatience with Israeli apartheid policies has rarely coincided with the views of any French administration, though Michel Rocard, an outstanding figure on the French left and prime minister under Mitterrand between 1988 and 1991, did his best to push the Palestinian cause up the list of foreign policy priorities. A Protestant by conviction before his late turn to agnosticism, Rocard rose through the Parti Socialiste Unifié, which opened a dialogue with Yasir Arafat in 1969. He went on to develop ties with Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO’s representative in Paris, who was cleared for diplomatic status by the French foreign office in 1970.

Unlike the PSU, Mitterrand’s Parti Socialiste had no misgivings about the Israeli Labor Party, which it identified as a fraternal socialist organisation. In the spring of 1972, Mitterrand arrived in Israel at the invitation of Golda Meir and was chaperoned, without the least objection on his part, on a tour of the recently occupied territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and parts of Sinai). By the end of that year, after the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September, Meir had decided that Hamshari should be one of several PLO figures to pay the price. He was critically injured by a bomb planted in his Paris home and died a lingering death. Rocard was at the interment at Père Lachaise. Hamshari’s assassination foreshadowed the fate of Dulcie September, the ANC’s representative in Paris, who was murdered by apartheid agents outside her office in 1988. Unlike Hamshari, she has a street in Paris named after her.

Rocard abandoned the PSU a couple of years later and threw in his lot with the PS. He accompanied its first secretary, now leader of the opposition, on another visit to Israel in 1976. Under Rocard’s guidance, Mitterrand was introduced to PLO supporters on the West Bank and discouraged from swanning around the Golan Heights with Labor Party dignitaries. Jean-Pierre Filiu, the author of Mitterrand et la Palestine (2005), recalls that in 1980, when Rocard stood as a rival for the PS presidential nomination, the Mitterrand faction began a whispering campaign against him based on his pro-Palestinian position. For Rocard in the late 1970s, the problem was not so much the charge of antisemitism, which wasn’t automatically levelled at critics of Israel until much later, as the PLO’s record of terrorism and hijackings.

Rocard was defeated in the PS primaries and Mitterrand took the Elysée in 1981. When he became prime minister in 1988, six months into the first intifada, Rocard persuaded Mitterrand to invite Arafat to Paris and – according to Filiu – hosted him at the prime ministerial residence in Matignon. Rocard and his allies had hoped to cultivate more of these high-level Franco-Palestinian connections, but events got in the way. In 1991 the Mitterrand administration angered the opposition Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria – which had just won the largest share of the vote in parliamentary elections – by lending tacit support to the FLN in its successful bid to stay in power. In 1993, the PLO signed up to the Oslo Accords, which promised Palestinians a pitiful slice of their territory in return for peace. Arafat concurred. Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister and Israel’s broker at Oslo, was murdered in Tel Aviv in 1995. The same year, radical Algerian Islamist groups struck in France. The facile association of Palestine with instability in the Middle East and violence at home was irresistible.

Since the Six-Day War, however, Palestine has shaped the political imagination of French Muslims of North African descent. The most striking evidence of this was the appearance of Palestine Committees, formed in reaction to Black September in 1970, when thousands of exiled Palestinian fighters and refugees were killed in Jordan, after which the PLO decamped to Lebanon. The Palestine Committees are an underexplored moment in the history of Franco-Palestinian solidarity, partly because they were short-lived but also because they were formed by Maghrebi students in Paris, whose own story is often overshadowed by the larger field of scholarship on immigrant labour from the Maghreb. The committee members, mostly Tunisian and Moroccan students, were disenchanted with the independence regimes at home and enjoyed close links with Maoist factions on the far left, including the Gauche prolétarienne, which shared their preoccupation with Palestine.

These expatriate student revolutionaries found a resounding echo in a much larger organisation, the Movement of Arab Workers (MTA), which came together in 1972 as the committees dissolved, taking many of the students with it. The MTA made its mark with high-profile strikes and demonstrations over workplace injustices, the bitter issue of work permits, life in the grim migrant hostels and a bout of ferocious racism that resulted in the deaths of dozens of North Africans in 1973. The movement didn’t last beyond the 1970s but it was briefly a model of non-violent postcolonial activism, and the Palestinian cause was close to its heart. Today, as the death toll rises in Gaza, new Palestine committees have sprung up among students – at Sciences Po for example – whose actions, like those of the campus protesters in the US, are met with the same predictable slurs.

Macron and his followers are right to think they can ignore events in Gaza so long as they call for a ceasefire and advocate a two-state solution (with or without the input of Palestinians): these gestures cost nothing. Nor is there any harm in voting to upgrade Palestine’s standing at the UN, as France did in April. Macron can even assert that there is no ‘taboo’ against recognising a Palestinian state, as Ireland, Spain and Norway did in May. Nonetheless, the reason he gives for not following suit – that this is not the right moment – has angered some of his advisers and entrenched suspicion among people who doubt his resolve. By recognising Palestine, Anne Tuaillon, the disconsolate president of France-Palestine Solidarity, told the press, France could have sent a strong signal to Israel and the world. It would have been ‘a vital stage in the resolution of the conflict’, according to Salman el-Herfi, the former Palestinian ambassador in Paris. So if not now, when? The same question was put to Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande. The answer, perhaps, is that every French administration since Oslo has seen recognition as a one-shot weapon and possibly its most powerful: use it and you have nothing comparable left in the arsenal. But that’s to imagine it far too grandly as a deterrent, the diplomatic equivalent of France’s nuclear force de frappe. Does anyone really believe that Israel would hold back from its atrocities in Gaza and violent expansionism on the West Bank for fear that France might formally recognise Palestine?

French​ public opinion can be gauged from a poll conducted in April by the national polling organisation Ifop, which asked respondents where they stood on the war in Gaza and its repercussions for France. Perhaps thinking of the Bataclan attack, 71 per cent imagined that a version of 7 October could play out in France at some point in the future. Seventy per cent expressed their sympathy with Israel and 56 per cent with Israel’s ambition to extinguish Hamas, while 12 per cent held Israel entirely responsible for its war in Gaza. I was reminded of Ifop polls conducted in France during and after the Six-Day War, in which support for Israel came out at around 50 to 60 per cent, while support for the Arab alliance reached its nadir at 2 per cent. Not long after Israel’s victory in 1967, a rival polling organisation, Sofres, asked a broader question, to male respondents only, about their racism of choice: are you by disposition anti-Arab or anti-Jew? (A confusing question given that many ‘Arabs’ were Christians or Jews.) Thirty-three per cent of respondents said they were neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Arab; 20 per cent were equally opposed to both; 44 per cent had a stronger aversion to Arabs than Jews. Only 3 per cent were more anti-Jewish than anti-Arab.

Next week voters in France will start electing a new National Assembly. The destruction of Gaza is a peripheral issue among a majority of the public and most political parties, which still identify with Israel. The outlier is La France insoumise, led by the veteran left-wing orator Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Palestine weighs heavily on LFI’s internationalist conscience, as it did for Corbyn’s Labour Party. Mélenchon’s fortunes peaked in 2022 when he forged a left alliance that ended up with an impressive 131 seats in the National Assembly. LFI is now part of a hastily assembled left coalition, the Nouveau Front populaire, which hopes to diminish Marine Le Pen’s standing in the next French parliament by fielding a single candidate from the alliance in each constituency. Mélenchon and the LFI activist Rima Hassan – who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp near Aleppo and has just won a seat in the European Parliament – are fierce defenders of the Palestinian cause, but Mélenchon is a problematic advocate for Palestine. To announce that Jesus was killed ‘by his compatriots’, as he did in 2020, is to reproduce a virulent Catholic antisemitic trope in France. To hint that the national loyalties of French Jews who defend Israel are tenuous, as he has on more than one occasion, is to mirror Le Pen’s identitarian suspicions about France’s Muslim population.

Le Pen’s party, Rassemblement National, looks set to make impressive gains and may well be able to appoint the youngest prime minister in French history, her presentable 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella. (He has recently claimed that he won’t accept the post unless the RN wins an absolute majority.) Le Pen insists that her party is the best defence for French Jews against the forces of darkness: nobody mistrusts France’s Muslim minority more than the far right in its current, philosemitic mode. Le Pen condemns the anti-war student encampments in France as ‘pro-Hamas’ and stands by Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

Not all of France’s Jews support the Zionist cause – prominent Jewish campaigners for Palestinian rights include the journalist Sylvain Cypel and Rony Brauman, a former president of Médecins sans frontières. Of those who do, not all will rally to Le Pen as Israel shows its true colours, yet again, in Gaza. But Le Pen’s flirtation with the Jewish community appears to be paying dividends. In a piece for Le Monde in 2015, Serge Klarsfeld, the pre-eminent archivist of the Holocaust in France and a former tenacious Nazi-hunter, cautioned French Jews against the fantasy that a Jewish vote for Le Pen’s party would see off ‘Muslim fundamentalists’. He was convinced that ‘the rare German Jews who chanced their arm by voting for the Nazi party, because they were afraid of Bolshevism, came to regret it.’ But not long after 7 October Klarsfeld had a dramatic change of heart. In February he agreed to meet Le Pen, and in June announced that if it came to a showdown between the RN and a unified left, with LFI fielding the largest number of alliance candidates, his vote would go to the far right. This is a huge symbolic gain for Le Pen. Klarsfeld is still venerated in France’s Jewish community, and he still embodies the sense of euphoria – and anxiety – that took hold in the diaspora after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

In France, with its record of collaboration in the murder of the Jews, self-discovery by descendants and survivors of the Holocaust had to be taken one cautious step at a time. Many far-right French revanchists who regretted the loss of Algeria were also passionate antisemites and it paid for the Jewish community not to cause a stir. But in 1967, Israel’s prowess under arms earned the far right’s grudging admiration. That year, the conservative weekly Minute published a piece that put the case for Israel to its growing number of far-right readers: ‘In any event, with the Arabs, only one policy is possible: rule by intimidation [“la trique”] and a kick up the arse. Force is the only thing they understand and respect.’ The far right hadn’t come to love the Jews, but Israel had done what France had failed to do in Algeria.

Le Pen has recast these sentiments in acceptable terms for the 21st century. If her party does as well as she hopes in these elections, she will turn with a vengeance to the insoluble problems of immigration and the troubling abundance of Muslims on French soil, to which she claims to have all the answers, as the last vestiges of her father’s antisemitism are seemingly swept away. It’s nevertheless an alarming finding by France’s consultative commission on human rights that 24 per cent of her followers believe the ‘Jews have too much power in France.’

21 June

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